Reef Rash: A Comprehensive Guide

There’s a picture-perfect blue wave peeling lushly into a channel. A Perfect hollow barrel with an easy exit and roll-in entry–the easiest wave you’ll ever surf. The sun’s beaming, the water is bathtub-like, and there’s no one else in sight. It’s the stuff of dreams, right? If you’ve been lucky enough to sample the waves of the Mentawais or the Maldives, you’ll know this scene is a daily occurrence. I mean, it’s why you go! 

However, not everything is as it seems. What many people don’t tell you about some of the world’s best waves is they all break over sharp shallow reefs. Most tropical surf spots break over razor-sharp coral, and if you’ve ever dived on these reefs on flat days or been lucky enough to come into contact with one after a wipeout, you’ll know first-hand just how sharp and nasty they are. It’s a danger most surfers are pretty blase about. But falling can lead to serious injury, laceration, or reef rash. 

In this article, we dive into the annoying world and trip hindrance that is reef rash. From what it is and its symptoms to what you can do about it. I’ve written this post to give you confidence on your next surf trip and show you that reef rash doesn’t mean your trip is over. We have a bit to uncover, so let’s dive in. 

What is Reef Rash? 

Reef rash is the slang term given to a surfer who falls and cuts themselves on a reef. Typically, these types of injuries will appear as either a laceration or graze. They often look worse than they are if there’s lots of blood, and it can be so bad that medical treatment (stitches) is required. 

Coral is sharp and contact with it can break coral heads and mean you not only have a cut, but tiny pieces of coral implanted into you, which in somewhere like remote Indonesia is a recipe for infection. This is reef rash; if you’ve ever been on a trip and experienced it, you’ll know it can make you uncomfortable, itchy, in pain, and even out of the water. So how can you prevent reef rashes in the first place? 

How to Prevent Reef Rash? 

The best and easiest way to prevent reef rash is not to surf shallow reef breaks. Duh? Or, like me, spend your entire ten-day Mentawai trip terrified of the reef sitting wide in the channel. But you don’t want to do this. You want to catch amazing waves and maybe the barrel of your life. When surfing shallow reefs, there’s always the risk of hitting the reef and getting rashed up. 

Reef Boots 

The most common area to get reef rash and cuts are the feet. Whether from walking across the reef or getting in from a break to fumbling around and getting your board back after a wave, the feet cop the brunt of it when it comes to contact with sharp reef. Thankfully, you can purchase a pair of reef boots. These are super thin wetsuit boots that protect your feet from the reef. It’s the best way to prevent most reef cuts! I’ve never worn reef boots because I come from England and refuse to put on any sort of wetsuit-related bootie in the topics; after all, it’s what I go to Indo to escape, so I just get cut–stupid! 

Helmet 

A helmet is great for more serious waves, such as shallow, hollow reef passes. The Gath helmet has seen a resurgence in recent years in lineups worldwide after Owen Wright took out the Chopes WCT wearing one. It’s strange that, as surfers, most of us don’t wear helmets even when surfing waves of consequence; you wouldn’t see a skateboarder without a helmet launching massive airs in a half pipe, would you? So a helmet might not prevent reef rash, but it can protect you against more serious and life-threatening injuries on shallow reefs. 

Rash Vest 

The clues in the name. A wetsuit top (2mm) can help prevent reef rash. Let’s say you fall and scrape your back against the bottom, bareback this would result in long grazes and reef rash all down your back. But by wearing just a thin wetsuit top, you project yourself, even just a little bit, from this risk. While a wettie top might not protect you entirely, it also serves as excellent sun protection, and if it’s a bit windy or raining, even in the tropics, I get cold, which helps with that too!

Symptoms of Reef Rash 

Other than bleeding and stinging, some of the reef rash symptoms may include: 

  • Aching 
  • Firey feeling  
  • Redness 
  • Soreness 
  • Itching 

Mainly it will sting a lot and be annoying, but if symptoms persist, it could mean you have an infection (look for a reddening area around the cut), which will need antibiotics. 

How to Treat Reef Rash? 

If you’ve already had a fall and copped a bit of reef rash, don’t stress. There are a few ways you can treat it and prevent infection straight off the bat. Please note that for severe lacerations and cuts, you’ll need medical attention and may need stitching. But for minor scratches and grazes, the following remedies can work wonders. 

Lime – Any surf camp in the tropics will have a few limes knocking about, and this is the traditional budget surf travelers’ reef rash remedy. And yes, it works–well! Grab a lime and squeeze and rub it into the rashed area. The acidity in the lime will help clean and disinfect bacteria from the reef. Yes, it does hurt like hell, and yes, you might scream. But it’s super effective. 

Betadine – Betadine is not available in all counties (I can’t get it over the counter in the UK), but if you’re in Bali or coming from Australia, you can buy s small tub of betadine for less than $10 at your local chemist. It’s a brown disinfectant liquid that stops bacteria, and so when poured and dabbed into reef rash world wonders. 

Chinese Medicine – similar to Betadine, and no, I don’t know if this is the official name, is a disinfectant liquid that I have only seen in Indonesia and always seems to work the best when it comes to cleaning and treating reef cuts. 

How Long Does Reef Rash Last? 

It depends, and I know this isn’t what you want to hear, particularly if you’re reading this having just cut yourself and don’t know how many days of your surf trip you’ll miss! For minor cuts and scrapes, you can more or less go straight back out, and if you’re on a short trip, I’d advise getting on with it and cleaning your cuts after every surf to prevent infection. 

What you do want to do is prevent ulceration. Sea ulcers are a nightmare on surf trips to the tropics. The humidity, heat, and dirt are a recipe for infection, and getting a cut wet constantly leads to a sea ulcer, like a hole that never closes up. You won’t develop a whole ulcer on a short trip, but it can be a nightmare on long tropical surf stints. 

I try never to let a sea ulcer or cut prevent me from surfing on a trip, and I use a few tips and tricks to ensure I can always surf. Please note I am not a doctor, and this certainly isn’t medical advice, so don’t follow this advice blindly, but this is what I do to keep surfing.

  1. First, I disinfect the area after surfing, usually with lime or betadine, immediately after the incident. I’ll then let the cut breathe if it’s in an area that won’t come into contact with the ground. For instance, if it’s on the bottom of my foot, I’d suggest a light bandage, plaster, and sock keep sand, dirt, and flies out.  
  1. Air the cut whenever you can, for example, if you’re taking an afternoon nap or sitting down for a while. But when it comes to surfing, I just try and give the cut as much protection as possible. First, I may apply superglue over the cut (Yep, I’m not a doctor), then use some sort of bandage as padding,s and then duct tape around the area. This can work well in stopping water from getting into a cut and protecting it as you move around on your board. 
  1. Then after surfing, I whip off the protection and give it a good ocean again, so the process repeats itself. This is only a temporary solution, and you’ll find that most reef rashes heal by themselves; it just takes much longer in the tropics, and eventually, they seal up. The main goal is to manage and prevent infection. 

Final Words 

So, there we have it, a complete guide to reef rash. Reef rash can be extremely annoying but is almost part and parcel of any great surf trip to good waves. It’s inevitable to come into contact with the reef at some stage, but with some preventative measures (ref boots and rashie) and some good old disinfectant and duct tape, don’t let reef rash ruin your trip and keep you out of the water. 

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