Tips to Avoid Water-Borne Illnesses

Just in time for Independence Day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued another report on disease outbreaks associated with swimming in rivers, lakes and oceans.

People typically get sick from recreational water illnesses (RWI) when they accidentally ingest water contaminated by fecal matter. Such contamination can happen through wastewater and sewage runoff, flooding or someone defecating while swimming, according to the report.

“The most common RWI is diarrhea,” said Christopher Ohl, MD, professor of infectious diseases at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “Swallowing just a small amount of water that has been contaminated with feces-containing-germs can cause diarrheal illness.”

Untreated open water isn’t the only culprit. 

Some diarrhea-causing germs can survive in properly treated water for days. Standard levels of chlorine and other disinfectants can kill most germs in swimming pools within minutes; however, one particular germ, Cryptosporidium, can survive for more than seven days in properly treated water, according to Ohl.

“One of the worst offenders is the kiddie wading pool,” said Ohl. “Warm, shallow water and kids in swim diapers, can create a perfect breeding ground for water-borne infections even though the water is chlorinated. The best way to prevent getting sick is to avoid swallowing any water.”

Using swim diapers won’t keep diarrhea germs out of a pool and can offer parents a false sense of security when it comes to containing diarrhea. 

“Swim diapers might hold in some solid feces but these diapers only delay diarrhea-causing germs from leaking into the water by a few minutes,” said Ohl. “Swim diapers don’t keep these germs from contaminating the water.”

Ohl and the CDC offer the below tips to stay healthy while swimming:

  • Avoid swallowing water you swim in. 
  • Don’t swim or let kids swim if sick with diarrhea. 
  • Take kids on frequent bathroom breaks.
  • Check diapers, and change them in a bathroom or diaper changing area—not poolside—to keep germs away from the pool.