Allergic Reactions While at the Beach

Sun, Water, Smoke, Insects, and Sunscreen

While a beach is a joy for most people, some people may literally be allergic to the beach. The allergy may not only be due to substances you touch or breathe but also things you may never have thought of, like sunlight.

An allergy is ultimately the body's response to anything it mistakenly regards as abnormal, which can lead to a rash and other symptoms. This article explores some of the common and uncommon allergies you might experience at the beach and ways to prevent or treat them.

A family having fun on the beach
Uwe Krejci / Getty Images

Sunscreen Allergies

Sunscreen is considered a must at the beach to reduce the risk of skin cancer. However, certain chemicals in sunscreen can cause a reaction in some people known as allergic contact dermatitis. Symptoms include a red and itchy rash, often with bumps and blisters.

Reactions to sunscreen can be due to the active ingredients (e.g. oxybenzone) or due to fragrances or preservatives included in the sunscreen product. For some patients, the reaction to sunscreen only appears when they are exposed to both the sunscreen and to the sun, and they would not react if sunscreen were worn in shaded environments.

You can reduce the risk of sunscreen allergy by purchasing a hypoallergenic sunscreen that contains fewer UV-filtering chemicals. There are also natural sunscreens that contain metal-based substances like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide that reflect light.

Allergies to Sunlight

A sun allergy is a relatively rare condition caused by exposure to UV radiation from the sun. It can cause itching, burning, stinging, and hives on sun-exposed skin. Also known as solar urticaria, a sun allergy usually develops quickly but can also go away quickly once you get out of the sun.

Some "sun allergies" have nothing to do with the sun. Instead, they are caused when basking in the sun causes the body to overheat.

Known as cholinergic urticaria, this form of allergy causes symptoms similar to solar urticaria but can affect covered parts of the body as well as uncovered parts. Cholinergic urticaria tends to respond to over-the-counter antihistamines like Zyrtec (cetirizine).

In rare cases, solar urticaria can cause life-threatening anaphylaxis with severe exposure. Because of this, it is usually recommended to limit your sun exposure if you have a history of solar urticaria. Talk with your physician about whether you need to carry an epinephrine auto-injector to treat anaphylaxis. Over-the-counter antihistamines may help if you develop a rash, and most prefer a non-sedating one such as cetirizine (generic Zyrtec) or fexofenadine (Allegra). While antihistamines can greatly improve hives and rash, they do not treat anaphylaxis.


Solar urticaria is an allergy caused by exposure to UV rays from the sun. Cholinergic urticaria is a similar reaction that is caused when the body is overheated.

Barbecue Allergies

For many people, a day at the beach and a barbecue is the recipe for a perfect day. However, "roughing it" with scavenged wood can turn the perfect day into a family crisis.

Unless you know the exact species of wood you are gathering, you may end up exposing yourself to things like poison oak or poison sumac.

It's bad enough to touch these poisonous plants, which contain allergy-causing chemicals called urushiols. But burning the plants releases urushiols into the air, which can cause itchy, blistering bumps even if you don't touch the plants.


Barbecue smoke can sometimes cause an allergy. Burning poisonous plants like poison oak disperses allergy-triggering substances into the air. If you have a pollen allergy, burning certain woods can disperse the same allergenic chemicals found in pollen.

Allergies From Swimming

Allergies that occur after swimming are usually caused by organisms living in the water. These not only involve creatures in seawater but those in freshwater as well.

Swimmer's itch is a condition caused by exposure to tiny parasites that live in freshwater. Also known as cercarial dermatitis, swimmer's itch is most likely to occur in places where there are a lot of aquatic birds or snails. Swimmer's rash causes an itchy, pimple-like rash that will generally clear on its own after several days.

Seabather's eruption is a different type of allergy that occurs when you come into contact with jellyfish larvae in the sea. Also as known as sea lice, the rash usually occurs on covered areas of skin where the larvae become trapped, such as under a swimsuit.

Symptoms include itchy, raised bumps or blisters of different shapes and sizes. Rubbing and scratching only make the itching worse.

Because you usually don't know what microorganisms live in lakes or oceans, swimmer's itch and seabather's eruption can be hard to avoid. Rinsing off immediately after swimming can help reduce the risk. Calamine lotion or topical 1% hydrocortisone cream may help relieve the itching and swelling if you do develop a rash.


Swimmer's rash and seabather's eruption are both caused by microscopic organisms in bodies of water. Swimmer's rash typically occurs in freshwater, while seabather's eruptions occur in seawater.

Insect Allergies

What would a day at the beach be without insects? While most insects are simply annoying, some like yellow jackets or bees can be dangerous to those with a history of severe allergies. For these people, getting stung can lead to anaphylaxis.

Symptoms of anaphylaxis can come on rapidly after an insect sting, causing:

  • Severe rash or hives
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Swelling of the face, tongue, or throat
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • A feeling of impending doom

Anaphylaxis requires emergency medical care including the use of an epinephrine auto-injector. If left untreated, anaphylaxis can lead to shock, coma, suffocation, cardiac arrest, and death.


A day at the beach is something that everyone should enjoy. For some people, however, things in the beach environment can cause an allergic reaction.

This includes exposure to the sun (solar urticaria, cholinergic urticaria), to water (swimmer's itch, seabather's eruption), and to barbecue smoke (which can disperse allergy triggers into the air). Insect stings and sunscreen can also cause allergies.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can you prevent swimmer's itch?

    To help reduce your risk:

    • Don't swim in areas where swimmer's itch is known to be a problem or where signs are posted with warnings.
    • Don't feed birds around areas where people swim.
    • Rinse off immediately after swimming and dry off completely.
    • Avoid swimming or wading in marshy areas where snails can be found.
  • How can you relieve the symptoms of swimmer's itch?

    Try using an over-the-counter corticosteroid cream, bathing in Epsom salts, or using an anti-itch lotion. If the itching is severe, your doctor may prescribe a stronger lotion or cream, or an antibiotic if you have an infection.

  • How do you treat sea lice?

    Remove your swim clothes, gently pat your skin dry, and dress in clean clothes. To help relieve the rash, try using 1% hydrocortisone cream or topical calamine lotion. You can also use Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen) for any discomfort.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Daniel More, MD
Daniel More, MD, is a board-certified allergist and clinical immunologist. He is an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine and currently practices at Central Coast Allergy and Asthma in Salinas, California.