Healthy & Safe Swimming

When we start talking about healthy and safe swimming, we usually talk about things like swimming with a buddy and what to do if you're caught in a rip current. Those are all very important (and you can read more about them in our Fourth of July post), but for this post we're talking about the unseen dangers you can encounter in the pool, ocean, lake, or even the hot tub --- waterborne diseases and the germs that cause them.

What Are Waterborne Diseases?

Waterborne diseases are caused by germs, chemicals, and toxins found in the water we use. Common places where people come in contact with "dirty water" include swimming pools, hot tubs, lakes, oceans, water parks and public showers. Drinking or direct contact with contaminated water is the most common way people become infected with waterborne diseases, but sometimes they are passed on through contact with animals or through person-to-person spread.

When we think about the signs and symptoms of waterborne diseases, we usually think about diarrhea. But respiratory issues and infections in existing wounds can also be caused by waterborne diseases.

Some common waterborne diseases are:

  • Cryptosporidiosis --- An illness caused by Cryptosporidium that often results in prolonged (up to 2 weeks) bouts of diarrhea.
  • Giardia --- Giardia is a germ that can cause diarrhea. It's spread by swallowing water contaminated with poop containing Giardia.
  • Legionnaire's Disease --- A type of severe pneumonia caused by breathing in droplets of water containing Legionella.
  • Shigellosis --- Casued by the Shigella bacteria, this infection can lead to diarrhea that can be bloody or prolonged, fever, and stomach pain. There are a number of ways in which the Shigella bacteria can be spread, including swallowing contaminated water you swim or play in, or drinking contaminated water from wells impacted by sewage or floods.
  • Vibriosis --- Caused by the bacteria Vibrio and primarly involving diarrhea and, if open wounds are exposed to warm seawater containing the bacteria, skin infections. Most people get vibriosis by eating raw or undercooked shellfish (usually oysters). 

Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch to learn more. 

How to Prevent Waterborne Disease Outbreaks

It seems like it should go without saying, but....we have to say it. One of the easiest things people can do to prevent the spread of waterborne diseases is to....not poop in the pool.

People often catch waterborne diseases by swallowing water that's been contaminated with poop. Some germs can live in properly treated water for days, meaning no swimming pool, splash pad, or water park is completely immune to potentially spreading these diseases if people poop in the water.

You also shouldn't pee in the pool (or in the hot tub or on the water slide or in any water that's not in a toilet, basically) because it can cause eye and skin irritations, and can be harmful to the repiratory systems of your fellow swimmers.

Additional steps you can take to prevent catching or spreading waterborne diseases include:

  • Shower before you get in the pool. Chemicals such as chlorine can fight the dirt and sweat you bring in with you, but doing so reduces their ability to fight germs in the water.
  • Take children on frequent bathroom breaks.
  • Check diapers often.
  • Stay out of the water if you have diarrhea.
  • If you've had Cryptosporidiosis, don't get back in the water until 2 weeks without diarrhea have passed.
  • Stay out of the water if you have an open cut or wound. Use waterproof bandages if you do get in the water.
  • Wash your hands after using the toilet or changing diapers.
  • Remind children to avoid swallowing the water.

Visit the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology for more tips on avoiding illnesses in pools, lakes, rivers, and oceans. 

Keeping Water Safe After An Emergency

Not all waterborne diseases are tied in with a day at the pool or the beach. Natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes can result in contaminated water that is unsafe to drink, wash in, or cook with. If such an emergency has occurred in your area, check with local authorities and follow their directions on using and/or disinfecting water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, or bathing.

Learn more about using safe water during an emergency

Visit the ADPH Infectious Diseases and Outbreaks program's Waterborne Diseases page for more information.