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Are Those Red Tide Or Coronavirus Symptoms? What You Need To Know

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Jessica Meszaros
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WUSF Public Media

One doctor recommends to either wear a mask and goggles or go indoors to help with the symptoms of red tide, and he says the toxic blooms are driving more patients to seek medical help.

As red tide toxins continue to waft through the air along Gulf Coast beaches, they're also causing respiratory irritations for exposed people. Health News Florida's Jessica Meszaros spoke with Dr. Nathan Waldrep, chief medical officer for BayCare's Urgent Care Division. He explains the differences between symptoms of red tide and coronavirus, and how the toxic blooms are affecting urgent cares in the greater Tampa Bay region.

What are some common symptoms of red tide for everyday people just walking along or near the beach?

Sure, they tend to be most commonly eye irritation, runny eyes, itchy eyes, and sneezing and runny nose. Other symptoms, though, can be cough, congestion in the chest, kind of feeling a little fatigued, and maybe even some abdominal issues.

Are there any long-term effects of exposure to red tide that the medical field knows about right now?

Nothing that you would consider to be long-term. There can be for those that have fairly severe underlying lung disease, like severe uncontrolled asthma or COPD, they're required to be on oxygen every day. Their irritation to the respiratory passages from being exposed may continue for a number of days until they return to their normal baseline status. But we don't believe there's any long-term effects to humans from exposure to red tide.

This red tide event comes as the delta variant of coronavirus is spreading, making some people nervous about whether their symptoms are red tide-related or COVID-related. How can people identify the differences?

Because there is a lot of overlap in the type of symptoms, the big guidelines, the big three, would be No. 1: If your symptoms are only in the nose and the eyes, it's probably less likely that it's COVID, and more likely that it's red tide. No. 2, if you have fever, chills or body aches, much more likely that it would be COVID or some other viral infection other than red tide. And lastly, if your symptoms do not disappear in a very short time after you're removed from the environment of being near the water, if you go back indoors and an hour or two later, you're still feeling ill, that's also probably not red tide.

During long-term toxic red tide events like this one or even back in 2018, that one lasted over a year, is there a notable increase of patients coming in for respiratory treatment that you notice?

We do. We have three of our clinics that are actually hugging the west coast of Florida — St. Pete Beach, the Walsingham area in Pinellas County, and New Port Richey up in Pasco County. And those clinics, they're the same ones we see all the stingray injuries when stingray season is here. So they're coming into those facilities because they've had an injury or an event that's near the water. Those same clinics, we're seeing more people come in with red tide events.

At the beginning of a red tide event, I'm just curious if there's some kind of protocol or conversation had with the staff to prepare for for red tide.

Most clinicians receive regular updates from the Pinellas County Health Department. There's syndromic surveillance. The group of people that are monitoring what's going on, so they'll give us a heads up. We, as a health system, will also detect that this is occurring and send out reminders to our clinicians.

But it's actually the clinicians, the physicians and the advanced care providers on the front line that as they start seeing the patients, they're the ones that are raising their hand. sending out the emails to their co-workers, you know, word of mouth spread too. This is what we're seeing in the community right now.

Do you have any advice for residents and tourists along Gulf Coast beaches right now who are dealing with red tide?

Enjoy our beaches, enjoy Pinellas County, that's what we're here for. If you are going to be outdoors, and you have that smell that "I'm exposed," go indoors or wear a mask. Wearing the mask would be the best way to protect yourself.

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