Best Ways to Avoid Infection, Illness When You Swim

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University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
three kids splashing in blue pool with pink inflatable raft

With beaches and pools open for business, it’s prime time to think about microscopic threats in the water where we splash and cool off.

Whenever you wade into a lake, pond, creek or swimming pool, you run the risk of encountering microorganisms that could make you sick. More than 7 million Americans get sick every year from diseases spread through water, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Diarrhea is the most common illness spread through recreational water, but a variety of organisms can cause gastrointestinal illness. E-coli, norovirus, shigella, giardia and cryptosporidium are the most common.

Germs in water and soil can also cause skin, ear, eye and respiratory infections.

How To Avoid Germs in the Water

The best way to keep foreign invaders at bay is to keep water out of your mouth, no matter where you swim, says Amy Edwards, MD, pediatric infectious disease specialist at UH Rainbow. Also, don’t go into the water with an open wound.

Dr. Edwards offers these additional suggestions:

  • Shower after you swim. If you’re at the beach in contact with water and sand, sanitize your hands before you eat.
  • Dry your ears after you swim.
  • A person with diarrhea should not be in a swimming pool. People typically have tiny amounts of poop on their bodies. If a person with diarrhea goes into the water, they can contaminate it and make others sick.
  • Pay attention to water quality advisories from the Ohio Department of Health and other public agencies.
  • If bacteria levels are high at the beach, don’t put your head underwater, especially if you are at higher risk for illness.

Most people with healthy immune systems won’t get sick from contaminated water, Dr. Edwards says. Children younger than 6 months, older adults, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems are most at risk.

Where the Germs Come From

Runoff and sewer overflow from heavy rains can carry germs from human and animal feces into swim areas. Beaches along Lake Erie are tested regularly for E-coli bacteria, and health authorities issue swim advisories based on the test results. Elsewhere, it’s impossible to know water quality.

“If you have a friend with a lake in the backyard, you don’t know what’s in the water,” Dr. Edwards says.

Dr. Edwards notes that ponds with stagnant water heated in the sun teem with microorganisms, making them particularly risky.

“For most small ponds and lakes, it’s not so much runoff, but things that occur naturally,” she says. “They’re full of protozoa, fungus and waterborne bacteria. It won’t pose a problem for most people, but if you have an open wound, it can easily become infected.”

Public pools may seem perfectly safe because they’re treated with chlorine to kill germs. But chlorine and contamination levels are variable. Pools may not be as sterile as you think, especially if they are crowded, she says. Again, as long as you don’t swallow water, the risk is low.

The very safest recreational water is a well-maintained private pool, Dr. Edwards says. People shouldn’t be discouraged from swimming elsewhere, but should be aware of unseen hazards.

“Swimming is a really healthy activity and the vast majority of people will be fine,” she says. “But knowledge is power.”

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University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital provides expert pediatric care for infants, children and adolescents. With expertise in 16 medical and 12 surgical specialties, our team of doctors, nurses and other clinical staff has experience in diagnosing and treating children for a range of medical issues, from common childhood illnesses to complex conditions. Learn more about the nationally recognized medical care at UH Rainbow Babies.

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