Remember when we told you scientists wanted to look inside surfer’s butts for superbugs? Well, it was for a good reason. Antibiotic resistant bacteria, or “superbugs,” are becoming scarily commonplace. This is a huge problem for everyone—some scientists predict superbug infections will kill more people than cancer by 2050—but surfers are especially at risk. Surfers have always been vulnerable to infections from bugs in the ocean. But while your ear or sinus infections were easily treatable just a few years ago, there’s now a good chance of that infection being resistant to common drugs.
If you get a staph infection from California coastal waters, there’s about a 60% chance it will be MRSA. MRSA is methicillin-resistant staph strain, the same bacteria that nearly took Ryan Carlson’s leg and ended his career. This is scary stuff.
So how can you protect yourself? We spoke with two specialists, Dr. Victor Nizet, a microbiologist at UC San Diego, and Dr. Anne Leonard—an epidemiologist and the very scientist who’s been studying superbugs inside surfer’s butts. Here are their tips for surfers to stay safe:
1. Don’t surf if there’s a bacteria advisory after a big storm. Really. We know it’s hard. But don’t.
When there’s been a lot of rain, sewage systems can overflow and poop washes into the ocean. This is gross. And it means there’s more bacteria in the water, and more chance of an antibiotic resistance infection. So check the water quality before you go out, and if there’s a public health advisory think seriously about whether it’s worth the risk.
Yes, post-storm surf can be the best waves of the year. So it’s your call, but remember superbug infections can be life-threatening. Bacteria counts vary a lot beach by beach, so if your first choice is nasty see if you can find a cleaner break nearby.
2. Stay out of the water if you have an open wound or a fresh tattoo.
Your skin is your first barrier against waterborne infections. But if your skin is broken, by a cut, tattoo, or piercing, your defenses are down.
Bottom line: Consider staying out of the water while you heal. ESPECIALLY if the water quality isn’t great.
3. Take care of sinus and ear infections right away.
If you have fever and pain in your sinus area or ears, you should get to the doctor ASAP. They could be symptoms of sinus or ear infections, and it’s important to start treating those infections quickly, because there’s a chance—especially now that bacteria are harder to kill—that the infection could spread.
Sinus infections that go wrong are rare but scary. Bacteria can spread from your sinuses to your eyes, or even your brain, as famously happened to Timmy Turner, when a staph infection that started in his sinuses eventually spread and ate away part of his skull.
If you frequently have sinus infections, you should tell your doctor and get her to help you work something out. Solutions range from noseplugs (looks hilarious but is super practical) to ear plugs to nasal steroids and other medications.