One of the most overused adjectives in our sport is “sick”. We get “sick” new wetsuits so we can make the most of our “sick” new boards in “sick” winter waves to get ready for our “sick” tropical surf trips. But as the rainy season has begun to unleash some heavy downpours, “sick” reverts back to its dictionary definition.—Nick Jiampa
Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA)
Prevalence/Risk: MRSA has been found in coastal waters, and those of us who like to see how many consecutive non-showering days we can tally might want to change our filthy habits. Timmy Turner and Ryan Carlson are among professional surfers who have recently battled serious MRSA infections.
Symptoms: Painful sores, fever, warmth around infection site, shortness of breath, headache, and muscle aches.
What: MRSA is often called a “superbug” and we don’t have the kryptonite that can easily kill it. The bacteria is normally harmless and lives in the nose and on the skin of unsuspecting carriers, but when MRSA enters the bloodstream through wounds it can reek havoc on internal organs.
Prevalence/Risk: The Hepatitis A virus has been found in samples taken to study ocean water quality. All people who ingest the virus and who haven’t been vaccinated are vulnerable to infection, and the infectious dose is presumed to be between 10-500 virus particles.
Symptoms: Sudden onset of fever, rash, malaise, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal discomfort, followed by jaundice.
What: Hepatitis is one of the main reasons not to surf after rains. Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver, and isn’t good, but you’re also not likely to die from Hepatitis A. Most people recover relatively quickly while others experience symptoms for up to 9 months.
Encephalitis and Meningitis
Prevalence/Risk: Human and Animal waste are full of the bacteria and viruses that can potentially cause Encephalitis and Meningitis.
Symptoms: Headache, fever, and stiff neck. More serious symptoms may include seizures, stupor, coma, drowsiness, sensitivity to light, and feeling horrible.
What: Encephalitis is the swelling of the brain and meningitis is the swelling of the meninges, the membranes around the spinal cord and brain. They are very dangerous conditions and can lead to death, especially with bacterial meningitis.
Prevalence/Risk: Probably the most commonly reported Recreational Water Illness.
Symptoms: Diarrhea, vomiting, headaches, fever, cramps, nausea.
What: Think Montezuma’s revenge that’s not the result of tasty, yet sketchy, street tacos. There are a host of bacteria and viruses that cause diarrhea, and you’re likely to run into a few of them if you’re surfing your favorite rivermouth after the first rain of the year.
Prevalence/Risk: These bacteria are halophilic, meaning they can live in saltwater. They are usually found in warm saltwater and are especially dangerous in those who have compromised immune systems.
Symptoms: Vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, skin lesions, and death if the bacteria reach the bloodstream.
What: A Honolulu man died from V. vulnificus in 2006 after falling in the Ala Wai Harbor after a 48-million gallon raw sewage spill. It’s unclear how many surfers, if any, have been affected by this bacterium.
Prevalence/Risk: If surfing around rivermouths that have been shown to contain the bacteria then you are at risk.
Symptoms: high fever, severe headache, chills, muscle aches, and vomiting. Also may include jaundice, red eyes, abdominal pain, diarrhea, or a rash. If the disease is not treated, the patient could develop kidney damage, meningitis, liver failure, and respiratory distress. In rare cases death occurs.
What: Leptospirosis can be transmitted through the urine of infected animals, usually livestock. Surfers could get the disease by swallowing contaminated water, contacting water with the eyes and nose, or entrance through open wounds.
Unknown and Bizarre illnesses
Prevalence/Risk: High enough to make you think twice about paddling out.
Symptoms: Blood, pain, and everything short of spontaneous combustion…wait, include that too.
What: Nobody really knows the extent of the bizarre organisms that can turn a normal healthy human into a giant festering sore, so be careful, especially in places with large populations or places without adequate waste disposal infrastructure. In many places, the ocean acts as the toilet of cities, so if you’re not quite convinced that you shouldn’t surf just try envisioning an obese, hairy man whose sweating profusely as he delivers his digested McDonalds into your happy little surf world. Have fun.
And if you need any more reason not to surf after rains check out this video:
Please share any of your surf sicknesses below. And if you do happen to get sick from polluted water, report your sickness to your local organization that monitors your region’s water quality.