Healthy Beaches

The beauty of Maryland's coastline and beach recreation areas attract local citizens, and out-of-state ​visitors. With a little planning, practicing healthy beach habits can be as easy as remembering your sunscreen. 

This site provides some friendly advice to help make sure that all you take home from your day at the beach is a little bit of sand in your shoes and lots of happy memories.​ While swimming in natural waters is never risk free, routine monitoring for indicator bacteria provides a surveillance system to minimize potential health risks that may impact beach water quality. 

Our interactive map makes it easy for you to check the water quality status of your favorite location. Avoid swimming within 48 hours of a heavy rain event.


Pollution, Wat​​er Quality, and Monitoring​

Good beach water quality is important for the safety and health of swimmers. Water quality can deteriorate due to pollution caused by runoff after storm events, trash, debris, or even sewage. Sewage sources include bypasses from sewage pumping stations, combined storm water sewers, and sewage spills. Other sources that may cause poor water quality at beaches include failing septic systems, boat waste discharges, and wastes originating from pets, wildlife and farm animals that may runoff into the waters after storm events.

Read our latest Maryland Healthy Beaches Progress Report

Disease-causing microorganisms associated with untreated sewage and animal waste may potentially pose a health threat to swimmers. These microorganisms are invisible to the naked eye and can be found in the form of bacteria, viruses, protozoa, or worms. Direct exposure to pathogenic organisms might cause illnesses such as gastroenteritis, with symptoms such as fever, diarrhea, and rashes. ​Because the number of potential pathogens is too vast to monitor individually, indicator organisms are monitored and used to assess recreational water quality. Indicator organisms such as enterococci and E. coli are two types of bacteria commonly found in the gut of all warm-blooded ani​mals and are used to indicate a recent source of pollution in recreational waters.

Maryland's water quality regulations for beaches are published in COMAR 26.08.09.  

Common ​Questions​​

What causes my local health department to issue an advisory recommending against swimming and water sports?

Swimming in natural waters is not free of risk. After water sample results show that indicator bacteria levels are too high, the local health department will put the beach under advisory because there is an elevated risk that swimmers may get sick. If there is sewage or some other hazardous condition in the water, the local health department will close the beach because there is a known risk to health. When sample results meet the acceptable level, the beach will be reopened.

What are e​nterococci and E. coli?

These are bacteria that are found in the intestine of all warm-blooded animals, including humans. Because these bacteria are easy to detect and commonly found in animal and human waste, they are used as indicators of recreational water quality conditions.  Enterococci and E. coli are the organisms recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (E​​​PA) to measure fecal contamination in recreational water.

What Are Vibrio bacteria?​​

Vibrios are bacteria that occur naturally in estuarine and marine waters worldwide. 

Can I swim or wade in the water when an advisory is posted?

It is recommended that you not swim or wade in the water. Risk of illness comes from contacting beach water in several ways. These include ingesting natural water, getting water in the nose, eyes, and ears, or in an open wound. If one has an open wound on the lower legs or feet, it could become infected even from wading.​

Is it OK to eat crabs and fish from an area that is under advisory or closed to swimming?

Because cooking kills bacteria and viruses, it’s generally okay to eat crabs and fish taken from these areas as long as they are handled properly. Fish should be washed with freshwater, kept in a cool place on ice and then cooked thoroughly. Live crabs should be thoroughly cooked. After cooking, neither the crabs nor fish should come back into contact with any surfaces or containers in which they were kept uncooked.​

Are the beaches closed when there is an advisory?

The beaches are not closed. However, we recommend that you do not swim in the water.

When will the local health department lift an advisory or closure?

An area may be reopened after results are back to normal.The acceptable level is determined by the State, USEPA and local health departments.

What kinds of health risks are associated with swimming and other recreational water contact?

Natural bodies of water can contain bacteria, viruses or other harmful microorganisms. Swimmer’s ear, an infection of the outer ear, is the most common problem, but other water related illnesses can be acquired by accidentally swallowing contaminated water. Disease causing microorganisms can also enter the body through cuts and scrapes. You can find out more from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.

What precautions should you take before swimming in area creeks and rivers?

Avoid swimming after a heavy rain, and wait about 48 hours or until the water clears. Avoid swimming near storm drains along the beach. Look for trash and other signs of pollution such as oil slicks or scum on the water. These kinds of pollutants may indicate the presence of disease causing microorganisms that may also have been washed into the water. Don’t swim if you have an ear infection, perforated eardrum, open cuts, skin lesions or a weakened immunity.

What should I do after coming in contact with natural bodies of water?

Shower and wash your hands well with soap and warm water soon after swimming and before eating.

How can I prevent illnesses when crabbing and fishing?

Assure proper bandaging and care of wounds or abrasions. Wear sturdy gloves with any contact you have with water and sharp objects (fish fins and scales, boating equipment, etc.). Keep your hands as clean as you can. Waterless hand cleansers kill many germs and are easier on the skin than constant hand washing.

What if I or someone I know has been exposed to harmful algae?​

If you have questions about the health effects of harmful algae, or you think you or someone you know is having health problems that could be related to harmful algae, please contact the Maryland Department of Health​ toll-free at (866) 703-3266​. You can also contact your local health department.​​

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