While snorkeling at what used to be her favorite spot in the Caribbean, Suzanne Williamson felt something brush against her calf, and then a small sting.
“Uh-oh,” she said to herself, fearing the worst — a woman down the beach had warned her that she’d seen jellyfish in the water. “But when I looked around and checked my leg, I saw nothing,” she says.
Williamson showered in her condo and then went for a hike in the rainforest.
“On the way back, my leg started to itch,” she says. “I picked up my pant leg and was horrified to see a huge, raised red area stretching from my calf down to my ankle. It hurt and itched like crazy, almost exquisitely.”
It turns out that some jellyfish stings can take several hours, even days, to reveal themselves. In the meantime, Williamson had made the wrong move: She should have rinsed with salt water, not fresh, which can worsen the reaction.
Williamson and her husband spent the next two days exploring not beaches and reefs, but pharmacies and doctors’ offices — even the hospital emergency room. But no one could help beyond giving her a shot of antihistamine with a chaser of over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream. “I asked one doctor what islanders do when they get stung by a jellyfish, and he said, ‘We suffer.’”
So did she. “The fun aspect of our trip was over when I got stung,” Williamson says.
Back home in Manhattan, her dermatologist gave her a prescription-strength hydrocortisone cream, which stopped the pain and itching almost immediately.
“Before going someplace now, I check out the medical risks, maybe talk to my doctor,” says Williamson. “I take a first-aid kit, and I don’t go in the water without having that cream around.”
She learned the hard way, but you don’t have to. A little knowledge and preparation will enable you to deal with any of the itches and inconveniences you might encounter in the Caribbean.
Did you know that even dead jellies can be harmful if touched? “The people in real danger are the ones who are allergic,” says Dr. Paul Sanders of Travel Medical Consultants in Dallas, Texas. If that’s worrisome, call a dermatologist for allergy testing before your next trip.
Prevention: Avoid jellyfish-infested waters, or wear a wetsuit and gloves.
Symptoms: A red, painful, swollen, itchy rash at site of contact.
Treatment: Flush with vinegar and rinse with salt water, then immobilize. Apply hydrocortisone cream.
Get Help: In case of weakness, vomiting, muscle spasms, fever and chills or difficulty breathing — all signs of an allergic reaction.
Rich foods, lots of adult beverages, and water- or food-borne stomach bugs can all cause a case of tummy distress. “Taking a swig of Pepto-Bismol a few times a day can help settle your stomach,” recommends Dr. Sanders.
Prevention: Eat thoroughly cooked foods while they’re still hot; eat raw fruits and veggies that you peel yourself; drink only beverages that come from sealed containers.
Symptoms: You know it when you’ve got it.
Treatment: Whack it with Imodium; replace lost fluids and electrolytes with sports drinks.
Get Help: If the victim suffers from vomiting, acute stomach pains or bloody stools.
Nothing ruins more vacations faster than a smackdown from Mr. Sun. “The worst thing you can do is lay in the sun for hours without moving,” says Dr. Sanders. For a safe tan, limit sunbathing to 20 minutes a day for three to five days. The alternative is a week or more of recovery and irritating lobster jokes.
Prevention: Slosh on the sunscreen, SPF 15 or higher, and limit your time in the sun. Wear protective clothing and a brimmed hat.
Symptoms: Red, inflamed skin that’s sensitive to heat and touch.
Treatment: Take a cool bath, then apply sunburn cream or aloe-vera gel.
Get Help: If the burn blisters, or if the victim suffers delirium or unconsciousness.
Anyone can tell you the best way to avoid dehydration: Drink lots of water. Just don’t wait till you’re thirsty to do it. “By the time you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated,” says Dr. Sanders. “Keep the water flowing continually throughout the day.” You should limit beverages with diuretics, like caffeine and alcohol, or drink extra water to compensate.
Prevention: Down at least one glass of water for every hour that you spend outdoors.
Symptoms: Like a hangover — bad headache, dry mouth and lips, low urine output.
Treatment: Move out of the heat, lie down and sip cool water.
Get Help: If the sufferer loses consciousness, vomits repeatedly or shows signs of shock (clammy skin, weak pulse, shallow breathing).
Like dehydration, it sounds simple to avoid: Feel overheated? Find someplace cool to rest. But heat exhaustion can happen fast. “Your body accumulates so much heat so rapidly that you can’t get rid of it,” says Dr. Sanders. Wearing a hat and light clothing can help. However, the sun doesn’t have to be hitting you for heat exhaustion to occur; very hot and humid conditions are also risky.
Prevention: Slow down outdoor activities; dress in cool clothes; take breaks indoors.
Symptoms: Elevated body temperature, headache, dizziness, pale and damp skin.
Treatment: Hop in a cool shower or wet down and fan yourself. Sip cool water.
Get Help: If the person can’t keep fluids down, is delirious or has a temperature above 101 degrees.
Whether it comes by land, sea or air, this disorder arises when messages from the inner ear, eyes and body don’t jibe with each other. The good news: It rarely becomes an emergency. The bad news: You feel like you want to die. “Once you have it, you can help by focusing on the horizon, reorienting to a stable environment,” says Dr. Sanders. But the most effective thing is to prevent it with medication.
Prevention: Take over-the-counter antihistamine pills (Bonine, Dramamine), or use a prescribed scopolamine patch (Transderm Scop).
Symptoms: Nausea, vomiting, vertigo, increased sweating, general discomfort.
Treatment: Getting your feet on firm ground is the only true cure.
Get Help: If the illness grows progressively worse, even when the person is back to normal surroundings.
Bugs dig aloha shirts. “Most insects are attracted to floral prints and bright, primary colors,” says Dr. Sanders, “which is another good reason to wear light-colored clothes.” The risk of insect-spread diseases — yellow fever, dengue, malaria — is low in the Caribbean, but itchy bites can drive you mad and interfere with your beauty sleep.
Prevention: Slather on insect-repellant lotion (better than spray or liquid); wear light colors; eschew flowery scents.
Symptoms: Itching, redness and swelling near the site of the bite or sting.
Treatment: Remove stinger (if it’s a bee sting), wash with soap and warm water and apply a hydrocortisone cream.
Get Help: If the person experiences abnormal swelling, difficulty breathing, chest pain or fainting.
Most of us know it as a “kid thing,” but this infection caused by bacteria growing in the ear canal can keep you landlocked for an entire trip.
Prevention: If you’re prone to this malady, use over-the-counter swimmer’s eardrops when you get out of the water, and then dry your ears.
Symptoms: Itching, ear pain, loss of hearing.
Treatment: If you think you’re developing an infection, use the drops again. If it doesn’t improve by the next morning, see a doctor. Take an antihistamine and use prescribed antibiotic eardrops.
Get Help: As fast as you can, so you can get back to blowing bubbles sooner.
Caribbean Travel & Life is the magazine for anyone in search of the perfect tropical getaway. Each issue presents expert insider’s advice on where to find the Caribbean’s best beaches and attractions, its finest resorts and spas, liveliest beach bars and activities, and its friendliest people.