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By Gail Belsky
When temperatures soar, families hit the beach. In 2009, an estimated 300 million Americans spread out their towels and smelled the sea air, according to the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA).
But while beach outings are one of the highlights of summer, they also present serious hazards -- from sunburn and jellyfish stings to riptides and lightning. Here's how to protect your family:
Some experts believe that just one blistering sunburn can double your risk for getting skin cancer, which is why the American Cancer Society recommends avoiding prolonged exposure to the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun's ultraviolet rays are strongest. Make a firm rule that kids sit under a beach umbrella whenever they're not swimming. Have them wear a hat, sunglasses and a shirt or cover up when they're walking around or playing in the sand. And of course, slather on the sunscreen and SPF lip balm.
Tip: Choose a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher and use approximately 2 tablespoons of it to cover your entire body. Apply a half hour before heading out, and reapply every two hours or right after swimming or heavy sweating.
When you spend too much time in the sun and heat or have a severe sunburn that gives off heat, it's easy to become dehydrated. Dehydration occurs when your body loses too much water and essential salts, and the symptoms include dizziness, thirst and fatigue. Children and adults over age 60 are most -- and are at greater risk of developing life-threatening complications if they don't replace lost fluids. The key to preventing and treating mild dehydration is simple: Drink plenty of fluids, including sports drinks, which restore body fluids, salt and electrolytes.
Tip: In addition to drinks, pack your cooler with fruit, which has a high liquid content. Cold watermelon chunks or frozen grapes are summertime favorites.
Nearly 80 percent of beach lifeguard rescues are due to riptides -- strong currents of water that pull away from the shore -- according to the USLA. The worst thing you can do if you're caught in a riptide is try to fight the currents and swim to shore. Remember to stay calm and swim parallel to the shore until the current relaxes -- which usually doesn't take long -- and then swim to shore. Or just float or tread water until you're out of the current. Teach your kids to do the same if they get caught too.
Tip: Swim near a lifeguard. The chance of drowning is five times higher at a beach that doesn't have one, according to the USLA.
Jellyfish are a pain -- literally -- to swimmers in every ocean of the world. Some are harmless, but others are poisonous, with barbed tentacles that inflict pain and irritation on people who come in contact with them. Mild to moderate stings can produce immediate burning pain, itching, blisters, numbness and tingling. They can also leave painful red marks that may take one or two months to go away. But prevention is easy: Don't swim, play or sit anywhere near them! (Note: If you feel sick or have trouble breathing after a jellyfish sting or if the stings cover a large area, seek emergency treatment.)
Tip: Soothe the discomfort with ice packs and skin creams.
Lightning kills about 60 Americans a year, according to the National Weather Service, and injures more than 300, often leaving them with debilitating long-term conditions such as memory loss, dizziness, chronic pain and muscle spasms. Lightning can strike as far as 10 miles from where it's raining. As soon as you hear thunder, leave the beach and take shelter in an enclosed vehicle or building. (Open-sided beach pavilions or snack shacks won't protect you.) Stay off the beach for 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder.
Tip: When you get to the beach, scope out a safe shelter in case there's thunder. Make sure your kids know to come out of the water at the first rumble.
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Gail Belskyhas worked on a variety of women's publications, including Parents, Working Mother and All You, and she recently wrote a book for women, entitled The List: 100 Ways to Shake Up Your Life. She is the managing editor of Your Family Today.