It is a favorite summertime activity for all ages. In fact, swimming or relaxing in recreational water, such as swimming pools, water parks, hot tubs, lakes, rivers, or the ocean is one of the most popular activities in the country. Despite safety measures put into place, swimmers can still become affected by recreational water illnesses.
In swimming pools, parasites, bacteria, excessive chlorine, and indoor air irritants are the most common causes of recreational water illnesses. Germs enter the water primarily through fecal contamination. Exposure to these contaminants usually results in diarrhea. However, contaminated water may also cause skin rashes, and infections such as swimmer's ear, swimmwer's itch, or respiratory infections.
And while it is true that chlorine does kill these germs, poor maintenance of chlorine levels and filtering systems may impact the effectiveness of chlorination. In addition, chlorine takes time to work, even in the best-maintained swimming facilities. Some parasites are highly resistant to chlorine and may continue to live for several days after a pool has been disinfected.
In lakes, rivers, and oceans, pollution by raw sewage is the largest culprit for water contamination with disease-causing organisms, such as bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and worms. And of course, open water is not chlorinated. This means that you should check with your local public health department or pollution control authorities regarding water quality at your favorite beach before you go.
In addition to fecal contamination, swimming pools, hot tubs, and water parks may also be contaminated by vomit or blood in the water. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes guidelines for the maintenance and care of these facilities and recommends procedures to deal with any of the above mentioned types of contamination.
If your favorite spot to relax happens to be a swimming pool, water park, or hot tub, check with the pool’s management and staff to make sure they are aware of these recommendations and have a clear plan for responding to any type of water contamination.
If your favorite water spot is a public beach, here are some questions the EPA suggests you ask your local beach-monitoring official so you can stay safe:
If your favorite beach is not monitored regularly, here are some things you can do to protect yourself and your family:
The CDC has published steps for healthy swimming to help you protect yourself and others against recreational water illnesses. Following these six recommendations will go a long way in ensuring everyone has fun in the water this summer!
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Environmental Protection Agency
Public Health Agency of Canada
Before you go to the beach. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/pdf/swimming/resources/epa-before-you-go-to-beach-brochure.pdf. Accessed February 24, 2016.
Healthy swimming/recreational water. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/healthyswimming. Updated Updated May 14, 2014. Accessed February 24, 2016.
Hyperchlorination to kill cryptosporidium. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/pdf/swimming/pools/hyperchlorination-to-kill-cryptosporidium.pdf. Accessed February 24, 2016.
LEARN: Human health at the beach. Environmental Protection Agency website. Available at: http://www.epa.gov/beaches/learn-human-health-beach. Updated February 22, 2016. Accessed February 24, 2016.
Steps of healthy swimming: protection against recreational water illnesses (RWIs). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/protection/steps-healthy-swimming.html. Updated February 24, 2015. Accessed February 24, 2016.
Last reviewed February 2016 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 2/24/2016