Can Inhaling Toxins from Red Tide Cause Cancer?

By Sara Bondell - July 20, 2021

Many Florida beaches have been heavily affected by red tide this summer.

Red tide is a naturally occurring algae that has been documented along Florida’s Gulf Coast since the 1840s.

It’s proved deadly for marine life and makes for an ugly and smelly trip to the beach. Inhaling red tide toxins called brevetoxins can cause respiratory irritation like coughing, sneezing, tearing and itchy throat.

But can it also cause cancer?

“Presently, there is no direct evidence that brevetoxins are cancer causing agents,” said cancer epidemiologist Dr. Matthew Schabath.

But if you’re currently undergoing treatment for cancer, Schabath recommends avoiding beaches that are affected by red tide.

“Given that these toxins can be inhaled and have been shown to adversely affect the respiratory system even in healthy people, it would be advised that cancer patients, who are often immunocompromised, avoid such exposures given their adverse effects on the respiratory system and potential adverse effects on the immune system,” said Schabath.

The Florida Department of Health also recommends people with chronic respiratory problems like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease avoid exposure to red tide toxins. 

Schabath says the use of masks may prevent or diminish the symptoms from exposure of red tide particles, but studies have yet to show how long the protective effect lasts. Retreating to an air conditioned room will usually provide relief from any irritation caused by red tide exposure.

If you are at a beach with high concentrations of red tide algae, the Florida Department of Health recommends the following:

  • Wear shoes when walking on the sand to prevent puncture wounds from spines or bones of dead fish
  • If you swim in the red tide, thoroughly wash off with fresh water when you get out
  • Do not eat clams or oysters taken from red tide waters, as they contain toxins that cause food poisoning
  • Make sure pets do not ingest the algae and be sure to rinse them off with fresh water if they swim in red tide waters

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Sara Bondell Medical Science Writer More Articles


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