Why you shouldn't surf after it rains

Surfing
Surfing: don't paddle out after a heavy rainfall | Photo: Shutterstock

Is it safe to surf after it rains? How does surfing after heavy rainfall affect your health? Make no mistake: the risk is much greater than the reward.

It's hard to be out of the water when the waves are picture-perfect and the lineup is empty. But if rain has just fallen, you might just stay where you are.

It's a classic dilemma - one that has been rumored in the surfing community for a couple of decades.

What are the risks of contracting diseases after it rains? Should you postpone a surf session just because it's raining?

Today, we know it's not a good idea, especially considering that many of the world's most popular surf spots are located in front of urban areas.

So, it's true - surfing after rainfall may seriously affect your health. The problem is well-known and has nothing to do with the water drops that fall from the sky.

Can you surf in the rain?

Yes, you can, as long as you don't spot a storm on the horizon or a high chance of lightning. Although acid rain is a reality, the primary complication comes from terra firma.

According to health specialists, surfers and beachgoers should never get in the ocean after it rains. But why is that?

Waves: urban run-off is responsible for the contamination of our surf spots after it rains | Photo: Shutterstock

Contaminated Waters

When it rains, the urban runoff increases and sends untreated trash, human and animal waste, fertilizers, pesticides, plastics, oil, paint, and other pollutants into waterways such as rivers, streams, lakes, and creeks.

Eventually, they will reach the ocean and contaminate the urban surf breaks on nearby beaches and river mouths.

Because rainfall events generate significant surface water, water pollution levels increase dramatically in a short period of time.

Sewage leaking from waterlogged sewer pipes will also contaminate the ocean sooner or later, making it dangerous to enjoy what the sea has to offer.

The problem is more common and frequent in high-density residential areas located near the coastline.

In some countries, the local authorities issue warnings and impose sanctions on those who violate the no-go restrictions.

Health experts believe people should avoid surfing or swimming in the sea for at least 72 hours following rainfall because they will expose themselves to diseases and infections.

A few hours after a major precipitation event, the ocean water becomes a paradise for E. coli (Escherichia coli), amoeba, protozoa, and other pathogens.

The health problems associated with swallowing fecal-contaminated ocean water include gastroenteritis, hepatitis, giardiasis, skin rashes, amoebic dysentery, nose, ear, and throat problems, pink eye, and other respiratory illnesses.

In other words, you may experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, inflamed stomach and intestines, and physical disorders related to exposure to harmful bacteria.

Rainstorms: don't surf immediately after it rains | Photo: Shutterstock

Increased Rate of Gastrointestinal Complications

In 2016, the Surfrider Foundation teamed up with the School of Public Health of the University of California, and Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, to analyze whether there was a strong and clear correlation between rainfall events and health problems or if it was all an unproved empirical assumption.

The Surfer Health Study concluded that there is an increased rate of gastrointestinal illness from surfing, and that rate increases following wet weather.

Researchers underlined that there's an extra risk of 12 surfers per 1,000 becoming ill when they enter the ocean in wet weather compared to when they do not get in the ocean.

In other words, there's a 5 percent chance of infection during wet weather and a 2.5 percent chance during the warm season.

The good news is that the illness rates were highest when surfing during rain and on the first day after the rainfall. Then, illness rates declined each day following rain, decreasing to near baseline levels after 72 hours.

So, it might not be a good idea to ride waves when the rain is falling from the sky.

Stay out of salted water for at least three days. It's a bit like surfer's ear - you think it won't happen to you until it does.

Additional Studies

Another study by the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability revealed that levels of bacteria in the water after storms are alarming.

Scientists studied water quality data from 32 popular beaches in Los Angeles and Orange counties for seven years.

They discovered that elevated bacteria levels lingered in the water on beaches located near storm drains and creek outlets.

"Although the three-day rule is simple, it is not applicable to all beaches and is not the best protection of public health," the researchers at UCLA explain.

"Public health agencies should warn beachgoers to avoid water contact at enclosed and storm drain, creek or river impacted beaches for at least five days after a significant rain."

Californian surfers are advised to stay out of the water five days after it rains. The three-day rule is appropriate for open beaches only.

Scientists recommend that the Golden State develops a uniform statewide storm drain impacted beach classification and monitoring protocol.

British surfers are also three times more likely to have antibiotic-resistant bacteria (ARB) in their intestines than non-surfers.

The study conducted by the University of Exeter in conjunction with the environmental organization Surfers Against Sewage revealed that wave riders ingest ten times more ocean water than people who swim in the sea and don't surf.

Researchers asked UK surfers to provide fecal samples to assess whether their guts contained E. coli bacteria that were able to grow in the presence of a widely used antibiotic - cefotaxime.

Cefotaxime is known for efficiently killing E. coli bacteria, but could surfers have developed a proper resistance to the antibiotic?

After comparing the result to non-surfers, scientists discovered that 9 percent of surfers had antibiotic-resistant bacteria, compared to just 3 percent of non-surfers.

"Antimicrobial resistance is one of the greatest health challenges of our time. We urgently need to know more about how humans are exposed to these bacteria and how they colonize our guts," underlined Anne Leonard, from the University of Exeter Medical School, who led the study.

The results are alarming because they confirm that genes can be passed between bacteria, which means that they can potentially spread the ability to resist antibiotic treatment between bacteria.

The research was conducted in England and Wales and analyzed a total of 300 samples.

According to the researchers, around 2.5 million surf sessions take place every year in British waters.

The state of UK marine waters is not dramatically different from international patterns.

This leads us to the conclusion that surfers are indeed a vulnerable population, and sewage and waste pollution are serious threats that should be urgently addressed by local authorities and national governments.

At One's Own Risk

If you're willing to sacrifice your health, and eventually your life, then make sure you do the following immediately after concluding your session:

  1. Take a freshwater shower;
  2. Drain the mucus and sinuses from your nose and throat;
  3. Disinfect your nostrils with Neti Pot;
  4. Unblock and clean your ears;
  5. Drink a lot of water;
  6. Eat a lot of vegetables, fruits, and foods high in vitamin C;

Protect your health. Don't go surfing after it rains. Check the quality of the water at your favorite surf breaks before making a decision.