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Your Red Tide Guide: What are the Health Risks?

Health Hub
Author name: Lee Health



Roll Tide!

Now hold on a minute. Florida’s the wrong state for that pep cheer.

Besides, the toxic algal blooming in our local waters is red, not crimson in color. 

Yep. Red tide is back in the news (again), making beachgoers red in the face with frustration, not to mention causing coughing, sneezing and watery eyes.

Dr. Mary Saunders, Lee Health’s medical director for Epidemiology and Infection Control, shares some tips on how we can stay safe while enjoying Southwest Florida’s beaches. 

What is red tide?

Red tide is one type of harmful algal bloom caused by high concentrations of the toxic dinoflagellate Karenia brevis (K. brevis), a type of microscopic algae found in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Florida Department of Health in Lee County. 

Florida Department of Health (FDOH) officials issued health alerts early last month in response to water samples taken at various locations in Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte, Lee, and Collier counties. 

“K. brevis create brevetoxins, which are a form of toxin that can harm people, animals, marine life, and the environment,” says Dr. Saunders. “Onshore winds and currents can carry the algae, which typically forms naturally offshore, into our coastal waters. Rough water and onshore winds break up the algae, releasing the neurotoxins in the air.”

Beachgoers and residents of beach areas with active red tides or severe algae blooms who are exposed to the toxins can develop respiratory symptoms such as burning eyes, noses, and throats. The symptoms are usually temporary and go away when a person leaves the area with red tide.

“If your symptoms don’t go away after you leave the area,” Dr. Saunders cautions, “you should get medical attention.”

People who have chronic respiratory issues, such as asthma or emphysema, should avoid red tide areas, she adds.

If you live in coastal areas with red tide, the FDOH advises you to close your windows and run the air conditioner, making sure that the A/C filter is maintained according to the manufacturer's specifications. 

Residents may also wear masks, especially if onshore winds are blowing, Dr. Saunders says. “Wearing a particle filter mask may lessen the effects, and over-the-counter antihistamines help decrease symptoms.”

What are the causes?

Hurricane Ian isn’t directly to blame for causing the red tide, say researchers. According to Mote Marine & Laboratory, nutrients from farm fields, lawns, and septic tanks fuel red tide blooms close to shore. The incredible amounts of wastewater overflows caused by Hurricane Ian powered the bloom, making it worse.

“We have no evidence that a hurricane causes red tide,” said Michael Parsons, a professor of marine science at Florida Gulf Coast University and director of FGCU's Vester Marine and Environmental Science Research Field Station. “We don't influence their start, as far as we know. But between hurricanes and runoff from human activities, we could be making them worse,” he told WUSF public media.

For shellfish seekers and people who like to fish: the FDOH does not recommend collecting and eating shellfish from areas with red tide. However, locally caught fish can be eaten if properly cleaned and cooked. 

Other tips to help you avoid red tide and algae bloom risks:

  • Avoid coming in contact with red tide or blue-green algae bloom. This includes swimming and jet-skiing. If you come into contact with contaminated water, wash yourself thoroughly with clean water and soap.

  • Avoid swimming in water if dead fish are on the shore.

  • Boiling water doesn’t remove or destroy algal toxins.

  • Children shouldn’t play along the shoreline where they might be exposed to clumps of algae or red tide water.

  • Attention, pet owners! Red tide and algae blooms pose the same risks to animals. Pets should not drink affected water and should avoid beach areas with red tide.

  • If you feel sick from exposure to red tide or algae or your symptoms don’t go away after leaving an area with red tide, you should call your primary care doctor. You can also visit a Lee Health Convenient Care walk-in clinic.


Red Tide Current Status:  Find current information about Florida’s water quality status and public health notifications for harmful algal blooms and beach conditions, from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Mote Marine Laboratory Beach Conditions and Reporting System: This service provides environmental conditions reports for participating locations in Alabama, Florida, and South Carolina.

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