Harmful Algal Blooms

What’s that stuff in the water? It could be harmful algae.

On warm days when the sun lights up those nearby ponds, lakes and streams, you may see a lovely blue-green tint on the surface of the water. In some bodies of water or along the water’s edge, you may see a brown or red tint.  

Is it OK to jump right in?

It all depends.

If you see clumpy mats that appear along the water’s edge or surface and it’s a little opaque, there could be harmful algae.

What’s the big deal? While not all algae are harmful, some can release toxins that can make you and your pet sick. Not only should you not swim in water with harmful algae, but you also shouldn’t touch it or allow your pet to drink it or eat anything along the water’s edge. It could be a Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB).

Algae are microscopic organisms found in coastal and fresh water. They are major producers of oxygen and food for many of the animals that live in the water. When conditions are right for their development, they may multiply quickly; this is called an algal bloom. A bloom often will change the color of the water. Algal blooms in coastal waters are usually red or brown, while in freshwater they tend to be green, blue-green, and less often red.  

The symptoms you could have if you are in contact with water that has harmful algae include:   

  • Rashes
  • Eye, nose, mouth or throat irritation
  • Allergic reactions
  • Headache
  • Abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea

Here’s are some helpful tips on what to look for when approaching water that looks like it could have algae that’s harmful:

Color:  The color can be blue-green, brown or red. Don’t just rely on the color to decide whether you’re looking at harmful algae.

Texture and shape or structure: The algae may look like spilled paint on the water’s surface. It may be oily and can coat objects on the water’s edge like sticks and rocks.  When the water is stirred up they can separate into chunks. They can be thin and easily broken apart when disturbed. They can be slippery and look like gelatin. They also could be full of bubbles.

Smell: The algae could have an earthy or fishy smell that is different from a rotten egg smell.

To see examples and watch videos about harmful algae blooms, visit the Harmful Algal Blooms page on the Virginia Department of Health website. You can also learn more about HABs by visiting the Harmful Algal Blooms Frequently Asked Questions page.

If you believe you are sick because of harmful algae, call your healthcare provider and report the location of the possible algal bloom to your local health department. You may report the incident to the HAB Hotline at (888) 238-6154 or online using the Harmful Algal Bloom Report Form.

To report fish kills and other dead animals in or near the water, call the Virginia Emergency Operations Center (VEOC) at 1-800-468-8892.