First Aid Handbook: Waterborne Illness

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Getting into the water is probably one of almost everyone’s favorite things about summer. Americans swim hundreds of millions of times each year in pools, oceans, lakes, rivers, and hot tubs/spas, and usually these are safe and fun times for everyone. However, that favorite “swimming hole,” – whether your backyard or neighborhood pool, a nearby lake, or the ocean – may be hiding some nasty waterborne illnesses which can take the fun out of your water activities.

What is waterborne illness?

Waterborne illness may also be called recreational water illness (RWI), referring to illness caused by germs and/or chemicals found in the water we swim in. This group of illnesses are caused by swallowing or coming into contact with contaminated water in swimming pools, hot tubs, water parks, water play areas, interactive fountains, rivers, lakes, or oceans. RWIs can also be caused by chemicals in the water or chemicals that evaporate from the water.

The most commonly reported RWI is diarrhea (caused most often by Cryptosporidium, Giardia, E. coli, Shigella, and norovirus), but encompasses a wide variety of infections, including gastrointestinal, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic, and wound infections.

How can I keep from getting sick?

There are a few easy steps everyone can take each time we swim to help protect ourselves, our families, and our friends from RWIs. Here are some suggested steps for healthy swimming, whether in a pool or beach destination.

Before you get in:

  • Check yourself. Keep bodily fluids, waste, and dirt out of the water. Stay out of the water if you have diarrhea or an open wound not covered by a waterproof bandage. Germs which cause diarrheal illness can live from minutes to days in pools, even if they are well-maintained. Many of these germs are quite tolerant to chlorine.
  • Check the pool. Well-maintained pools are less likely to spread germs. For example, check to make sure the drain at the bottom of the deep end of the pool is visible and drain covers are secure and in good shape. Make sure no chemicals are out in the open.
  • If possible, shower before entering a pool to remove sweat and dirt.
  • Be sure to observe any beach closure, advisory, or safety hazard signs. It’s harder to monitor non-pool sites on your own, so choose locations in less developed areas with good water circulation. Take a good look at the water before you take the plunge. If it looks “yucky” – stay out!

Once you’re in the water:

  • Don’t use the bathroom in the water! Take frequent bathroom breaks. Check diapers frequently and change them in a bathroom or changing area, not poolside.
  • Don’t swallow the water! This is true for swimming in all water and you will be even less likely to become sick if you wade or avoid putting your head underwater when swimming in water other than a pool or chlorinated facility.

What should I do if I DO get sick?

Children, the elderly, and individuals with weakened immune systems are most likely to become sick from contaminated water. Although these illnesses can be very unpleasant and painful (especially in the case of ear infections), they require little or no treatment. Some “bugs” which cause RWI may cause diarrhea lasting 2-3 weeks. If treatment is required, you typically get better quickly with treatment and no long-term health effects.

Don’t hesitate to contact the health professionals at Integrity Urgent Care if you start feeling ill – and especially if symptoms persist or you run a fever – after a swim at your favorite pool or beach. Call or visit one of convenient locations today. Summer is too short to miss out on even a day or two of fun from the after-effects of an RWI.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Healthy swimming: diarrheal illness [online]. Updated 4 May 2016 [cited 19 Jun 2018].
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Healthy swimming: steps of healthy swimming [online]. 27 May 2016 [cited 19 Jun 2018].
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Healthy swimming: oceans, lakes, & rivers [online]. Updated 4 May 2016 [cited 19 Jun 2018].
Environmental Protection Agency. LEARN: human health at the beach [online]. Updated 5 Jun 2018 [cited 19 Jun 2018].

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