You have probably seen the signs: swim at your own risk. It is a constant warning at local lakes, rivers and beaches and the warm temperatures this summer are raising that warning to a critical level.
A day at the beach - splashing, swimming, fishing and taking a health gamble within eyesight of signs warning of potentially dangerous levels of bacteria.
"If we see that the bacterial count is up and people are at risk, we then put out advisories," said Dr. Jimmy Guidry, a health officer with the
. "At the site of the beach, the advisories tell you not to swim because of the increased number of bacteria."
Every week from May until October, Guidry says the state lab tests samples from 24 different sites along coastal beaches and estuaries as part of the Beach Monitoring Program.
"We're looking at fecal coliform, which gives you an indirect measurement of contamination of the water," said Guidry, "and then we look at other bacteria called enterococci, which is a better indicator of the bacteria that causes intestinal infections."
The source of the contamination: sewage and agricultural run-off, especially after heavy rains. If ingested, CHRISTUS St. Patrick Hospital infectious disease physician Timothy Haman says you could end up with a very upset stomach.
"Diarrheal illnesses, gastroenteritis and those are commonly caused by things like shigella, e-coli, salmonella," said Haman.
The Beach Monitoring Program only measures contaminants in warm months, the time of year when ingredients are ripe for bacterial surges.
"With Louisiana's hot weather, it's certainly conducive to the growth of bacteria," said Guidry.
All but one beach in Southwest Louisiana is under an advisory. The exception: Lake Charles Beach North.
Gerald Sonnier of Port Barre brought his family to Holly Beach in Cameron Parish for a day trip. He says more should be done to alert swimmers when there are imminent dangers in the water.
"If it is severe enough, they should have somebody out here to let them know about it," said Sonnier.
Even if there is no warning sign near the water, Guidry says that does not not mean it is safe from harmful bacteria. The Beach Monitoring Program only measures
, not dangerous bacteria like
, also known as flesh-eating bacteria that surges in warm months.
"We don't usually monitor for it because we know it's in saltwater and brackish water year round. It's always there," said Guidry.
There have been three reported cases of flesh-eating bacteria in Louisiana this summer. In 2013, there were 11 confirmed cases reported in Louisiana and one death. A year earlier, in 2012, 12 cases were reported, resulting in one death. Eighty percent of those who contract it will survive, but the damage is permanent: blisters, scars, skin grafts, even amputations.
"It can cause cellulitis and fasciitis, which is a flesh-eating type disease, if it comes in contact through a wound. It can also cause sepsis and gastroenteritis from being ingested," said Haman.
A break in the skin is the only way vibrio can eat away at tissue. Sonnier has a cut on his leg and says he is making sure the water at Holly Beach does not touch it.
"I am being cautious as to how far I'm walking out into the water with it being right below my knee," he said.
Before dunking your head in a lake or river, beware of the ongoing threat of naegleria fowleri, a brain-eating amoeba that can be fatal if it goes up your nose.
"There is no way to test and see exactly how much is in each source, so the Centers for Disease Control says you should assume it's in whatever water you're in," said Haman.
Caution is a must if you are wading out into the waters this summer, and Haman says some should avoid it altogether.
"Anybody that has an open wound, cuts. Anybody that's got any kind of immune deficiency, people that are on chemotherapy, people that have HIV," said Haman. "Pregnant women should probably avoid it as well because some of the diseases can hit them particularly hard."
The Department of Health and Hospitals will not close beaches under advisories, but local governments have that option if the threat is sufficient. One example is after the BP oil spill in 2010.