02 03 Gallimaufry Grove: The Truth about Red Tide Sickness 04 05 15 16 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 31 32 33

The Truth about Red Tide Sickness


Depending on your exposure to the Gulf Coast, you may or may not have heard of Red Tide.  I had heard of it, and had even done some preliminary reading about it, but had never experienced it.  Until this year, that is.

Consider this post a Public Service Announcement.

There is remarkably little information readily available to the public about Red Tide, and what is available is usually funded by Parks & Wildlife and/or the Tourism Industry.  Let's just say that the information is a wee bit lacking and may even be a conflict of interest.  They have something to hide if they don't want to lose tourism dollars during a Red Tide Event.  Had I known what Red Tide could really do, I would never have allowed my family within 100 miles of the beach during a Red Tide event.

What I knew before this year was the basic tourism-industry-induced public service announcement.  It goes something like this:

During a Red Tide Bloom, you may experience irritation of the eyes, nose and throat.  You may also experience some coughing.  If you have asthma you should keep your rescue inhaler with you at all times.  If you experience discomfort, simply go into an air conditioned area or leave the beach until you feel better.  You should avoid eating shellfish, but it is fine to eat fish that have been filleted.  Go about your life and be happy.  Red Tide is no big deal.  There is nothing to be afraid of.  We would tell you if this was dangerous.  Yada yada yada.

In fact, this is what one member of the Texas Parks and Wildlife said about it on their Red Tide FAQ page:

Jack Ralph, former head of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's Kills and Spills Team, had this to say on the subject: "If it were my family heading to the coast, I would not cancel a vacation because of red tide. It's an isolated, patchy phenomenon that does not blanket every stretch of beach. On any given day, there are generally miles of good beach and clean water for beach-goers and anglers to enjoy. However, we encourage all travelers to heed the advice of the Texas Department of State Health Services, get the current facts and draw their own conclusions, since different people have different comfort levels with these kinds of situations."

Kind of makes me think James Ralph isn't getting out much.  The particular red tide event we encountered stretches at least from Galveston to South Padre Island (approximately 416 miles) and the typical red tide event lasts at least a month.  That isn't very patchy and isolated, in my opinion.

On the other hand, this is what my oldest son (aka Mustache) had to say about it after our experience:

I think my son has a slightly more accurate view of Red Tide.

So what is Red Tide, and what does it really do to humans?

Here is the condensed version, also from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department:

Red tide is a naturally-occurring, higher-than-normal concentration of the microscopic algae Karenia brevis (formerly Gymnodinium breve). 

This organism produces a toxin that affects the central nervous system of fish so that they are paralyzed and cannot breathe. As a result, red tide blooms often result in dead fish washing up on Gulf beaches. When red tide algae reproduce in dense concentrations or "blooms," they are visible as discolored patches of ocean water, often reddish in color.

Okay, so that was super condensed.  Basically Red Tide is an toxic algae bloom that may or may not turn the water red (hence the name).  When the normal coastal tides & winds push the bloom to shore, the crashing of the waves creates an aerosol of those toxins, perfect for breathing into your lungs.  Thank you, Karenia brevis.  I think I'll call you "Brevy" for short.  As in Brief.  As in, I will keep all contact with you very, very brief.

The powers that be are happy to admit that Red Tide is an irritant.  They will also admit that it kills fish (since it's kind of hard to hide the dead fish piling up on the beaches).  They tell you to keep your dog from eating fish, because it will kill your dog.  They warn you not to eat shellfish because you might die, too.  But that's about as far as they are willing to go.  And by all means, don't alter your vacation, because this will be FUN!

So now I am going to tell you the rest of the story -- The story of what happened to my family, because I am just a little bit miffed that this information was so buried it took me 3 days to find it -- AFTER I was sick.  I'm a little bit fumed that I was told it wasn't dangerous, but 11 days later, I am still in recovery.


We arrived on our favorite Texas Gulf Coast Beach (which shall remain unnamed because they didn't dump the Red Tide on the beach, and they don't write the public service announcements).  The day we arrived coincided with the first definite signs of a Red Tide event on that beach.  There was a little scribbled sign letting us know of it's arrival.  No worries.  I had read the info.  I "knew" it wasn't harmful to my family.  I wasn't worried.

We stopped at the RV filling/dumping station to load up on water.  The minute we opened the car door, I coughed.  I told myself it was a placebo effect.  I had read the sign, now I'm coughing.  Totally  in my head.  Then the next family member coughed, and the next, and the next.  We hadn't even got on the beach yet, and we were all coughing.  But there is nothing to worry about.  Don't cancel your vacation.  It will still be fun...  I had read (and believed) all the Red Tide literature.

By the time we got camp set up, we weren't just coughing, we were all hacking.  That's the only way to describe this kind of cough.  Our noses were running.  We were sneezing.  But we were at the beach.  At this point, the symptoms were just annoying.  I still wasn't worried.

The longer we stayed, the worse we all got.  Hacking became constant for every single family member.  We quickly ran out of things to blow our noses on.  Now our noses weren't just running, they were burning like fire.  Things would come in waves -- first a hacking session, then the nose burning/running, then sneezing.  It was worse when we were swimming.  Then we started seeing the dead fish.  First there were only a few, then there were more and more.

The powers that be said we could probably move down the beach to get away from the Red Tide.  So we moved almost 20 miles south.  We set up camp again.  By the time we got camp set up, the Red Tide had moved down to our new spot.  Our symptoms were getting worse than just annoying.  We were all starting to feel pretty sick.  The kids didn't even bother to do much swimming, because the irritation was unbearable when we were in the water.  No one took walks on the beach.  Mostly we just sat around and hacked.  Then the "eye events" began.  It felt like someone had sprayed mace in our eyes.  We couldn't open them for 30 minutes to an hour at a time, and when we finally could, our eyes were so light sensitive that we had to where sunglasses even in a darkened area.  It was sheer pain.  And we kept getting sicker.

My lungs were more than just irritated.  They hurt.  As long as my kids were having fun, I was determined to endure.  Only they weren't having fun.  We were all getting sicker by the minute.  My husband and I decided that we would pack up in the morning and leave the beach.  We couldn't think clearly enough to decide what to do after that.  Just. get. off. the. beach.

That night, we woke up with everyone hacking and some of us truly struggling for breath.   I felt like I could not get air.  I don't have asthma, folks.  Mustache asked how much longer he had to endure until morning.  May-May wanted to know how much longer this horrible night could possibly last.  I told them I didn't think it would be much longer, it had to be nearly morning, but I would check.  It was 11pm.  The night had barely started.  

My husband and I realized that the longer we stayed on the beach, the more ill we all became.  No one was  getting any sleep any way.  Sick as we were, we decided to start packing up in the middle of the night (this is only day, two, remember).  As we packed, we repeatedly coughed until we nearly vomited.  Our eyes burned.  We could barely breathe. It was agony.  All we wanted was to be off. that. beach.

I put the kid who was having the most trouble breathing in the SUV with the AC running full-blast.  He began to breathe slightly better.  The rest of us kept struggling and working.  We left the beach at about 2am.  There was only one other campsite still left on 20 miles of beach.  Even the hermit die-hards had run away from the beach.  The humans were gone and there were just miles and miles of dead fish.  

Most of my family began to feel better within 30 minutes or an hour of leaving the beach.  It took a couple days for them to fully come out of it.  Two of us, though, had got very low.  I kept telling my husband, "I feel like it's gone systemic or something."  Apparently, it had.  I began dealing with horrible gastro-intenstinal things that I won't tell you about because it's just way more than you need to know about me.  I felt like I had both bronchitis AND pneumonia (I've had both in the past, so I know what they feel like).  I was lethargic.  I couldn't think straight.  When I would sit still I would immediately fall asleep -- and not just because we'd packed all night.  I had all those symptoms for a solid week after leaving the beach.  Now it's been 11 days, and I still have a dry cough and some bronchial inflammation.  Thankfully, the rest of my family seems to have fully recovered, although it took one of them 5 or 6 days.  We were only exposed to Red Tide for 2 days.  What if we had continued to stay on the beach!?!

All this prompted me to find out how Red Tide REALLY affects humans.  There is almost NO information.  Florida seems to be the only affected state that is doing any real research on how Red Tide affects humans (or at least the only state that's talking about it) but they aren't saying much.  I (eventually) found out that doctors were reporting a 54% increase in bronchitis, pneumonia and similar respiratory  issues during a Red Tide event.  54%!!!!  That's kind of significant, in my opinion.  Why aren't we hearing more about that?

I also found out that almost no one (only about 2-10%) even reports the sicknesses they deal with due to Red Tide.  And they aren't bothering to keep the count of those who deal with respiratory issues.  I guess we only matter if we die of intestinal poisoning, but if we suffocate, we don't matter.  What gives?

Finally, I found this article from the LA Times.  In it I learned the following little tidbits about "harmless" Red Tide (these points are all taken directly from the article, and I recommend the read.  There is far more information than I am telling you here):

Ahem...May I remind you that manatees are mammals. Humans are also mammals. 
Generally speaking, humans tend to leave the beach before a manatee will.  It may have something to do with humans having legs, but that's purely anecdotal.  What if humans didn't leave the beach when they started to feel bad?  Would humans suffer the fate of the manatees?  I don't wan't to stick around long enough to find out, but I can't help wondering.

From now on, at the very first sign of Red Tide - at the very first cough - we will be running away from the beach.  Red Tide Event = No Beach Event

Do I think that everyone who is exposed to Red Tide will get sick like I did or worse?  No.  Nor do I think that the only people who will get sick are those with a pre-existing condition (as the public service announcements proclaim).  I did not have a pre-existing condition, yet I am still recovering from my exposure 11 days after the fact.  I have an inkling that length and severity of exposure may have more to do with how sick we get than was previously thought, as does personal sensitivity to the toxin.  More research needs to be done, obviously, but I'm not sure how many researchers can afford to offend the tourism industry.

(If you want another, more intellectual article, there is also this one.)

Stick around the ol' blog.  Next time I'll tell you how we salvaged our Red-Tide-Destroyed-Vacation.

Have a great day and beware of the Red Tide!


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