The outbreak doesn't have to be red in color. It can appear green, brown, or purple. The water might even retain its normal color.
One is most likely to occur in the Gulf Shores, Alabama, area during the summer or early fall.
Unless the surf is rough and pushing salt spray into the air, people enjoying the beach will probably not even know that an outbreak is in their vicinity.
Most beach tourists have never heard of the phenomenon until they experience one, and then they worry whether it is dangerous. Symptoms include sneezing, tearing, coughing, and eye, nose, and throat irritation. Contact with red tide might remind the tourist of the last cold or allergic reaction he experienced. Symptoms usually subside once leaving the affected beach.
Red tide is nothing but a discomfort to otherwise healthy people, but it is inadvisable to "stick it out." If the beach you usually enjoy is affected, find another beach or even move to a protected water. This is especially good advice for those with respiratory conditions like emphysema or asthma.
Particularly bad outbreaks can kill fish, sometimes millions of them. Most of the fish killed are small "bait fish," but sometimes larger fish like hardhead catfish and flounder wash up dead on the beaches. Often it is the dead fish that drive tourists from the beaches. Thousands of dead fish on the beach is unpleasant, at best.
Caution should be exercised walking barefoot around dead, larger fish.