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This summer, swimming pools and lakes will be filled with millions of people having fun and staying cool. It is important to learn the dangers of germs being spread in bodies of water and what you can do to prevent yourself and your children from becoming ill. By learning about recreational water illnesses (RWI’s), which are spread by swimming in contaminated recreational waters such as swimming pools, water parks, lakes, and oceans, you can protect your family from illness.

RWI’s are caused by germs like Cryptosporidium, Giardia, E. coli, and Shigella and are spread by swallowing water that has been contaminated by fecal material. How does water get contaminated? You share the water with everyone in the body of water. When people are ill with diarrhea, their stool can contain millions of germs. If someone with diarrhea contaminates the water, swallowing the water can make you sick. Recreational water can cause infections in your eyes, nose, ears, and in cuts or scrapes. Recreational water can also be contaminated by fecal matter rinsed off the bodies of swimmers. In addition, lakes, rivers, and oceans can be contaminated by sewage spills, animal waste and water runoff.

Chlorine in swimming pools does kill the germs that may make people sick, but it takes time. Chlorine in properly disinfected pools kills most germs that can cause RWI’s in less than one hour. Chlorine takes longer to kill some germs, such as Crypto, which can survive for days in a properly disinfected pool.

Where are RWI’s found?

Hot tubs

Skin infections like “hot tub rash” are the most common RWI’s spread through hot tubs and spas. Chlorine and other disinfectants evaporate more quickly because of the higher temperature of the water in the tubs.

Decorative water fountains

Not all decorative or interactive fountains are chlorinated or filtered. Therefore, when people, especially diaper-aged children, play in the water, they can contaminate the water with fecal matter. Swallowing this contaminated water can cause diarrheal illness.

Lakes, rivers, and oceans

Lakes, rivers, and oceans can become contaminated with germs from sewage, animal waste, water run-off following rainfall, fecal accidents, and germs washed off swimmers. It is important to avoid swallowing the water because natural recreational water is not disinfected. Avoid swimming after rainfalls or in areas identified unsafe by health departments. Another germ that can make people sick is called Naegleria.

Naegleria is found in warm, stagnant bodies of water and can cause severe illness. Naegleria enters the body through the nose when you are swimming underwater or diving into water. People can prevent Naegleria infection by not swimming in small shallow ponds or areas posted by local health authorities as “No Swimming.” Swimmers should hold their noses or use nose plugs when jumping or diving into water.

Who is most likely to get ill from an RWI?

Children, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems (such as those living with AIDS, those who have received an organ transplant, or those receiving certain types of chemotherapy) can suffer from more severe illness if infected.

What kinds of illnesses can people get from swimming?

These RWI’s have been linked to swimming, however diarrheal illness are the most common.

Healthy Swimming Tips

To help prevent germs from getting in a pool or body of water, use these common sense tips:

Swimming can be a great way to have fun and cool off when it’s hot. By being aware of ways you can prevent your family from getting sick, you can have a more enjoyable time when in the water.