Avoiding Water-Borne Illness While Swimming

Nothing beats the summer heat like a cool splash into the water on a hot day. But before cannon-balling in, consider this: each year there are approximately 30 outbreaks of recreational water illnesses that affect over a thousand people, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Recreational water illnesses are any diseases that spread by swimmers swallowing, breathing or coming into contact with contaminated water. Many are due to poor habits on the part of the swimmer, not the pool operators.

"We are a swimming country and I don't see us stopping swimming," says Michael Beach (yes, that is his real last name), associate director of the Healthy Waters program at the CDC. "The public needs to understand that they're part of the solution. We can't fix the problems of outbreaks when swimmers are coming in when they're clearly ill."

Whether spending the day poolside or bumming around the beach, the chances of recreational water illness can easily be reduced by taking a few health and hygiene precautions before you dive in.

When hitting the coastline for a day at the beach, think wide, clear and open waters. Beaches are most hygienic when they have the fewest people and deeper seas that allow the water to circulate, lowering the concentration of contaminants. Once you're in the water, steer clear of anything that could be releasing contaminants into the water.

Also, take a survey of the surroundings and notice the small things--is there trash lying around? Any dirty diapers or babies being changed near the water? All of these are signs that you might want to pack up the beach blankets and head elsewhere. "Swimming near pipes that have water or any liquid coming out of them is not a good idea," says Beach. "A lot of waste is dumped in waterways that can end up by the beaches."

Even the day you choose to swim can make a difference--swimming in the middle of the week when the beach is less crowded might lower the risk of disease. A new study conducted at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University measured the level of contaminants that can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea at two Maryland beaches. They found that beaches tend to be more risky when they're crowded because the swimmers stir up the sediment, releasing harmful microorganisms into the water. Says study author Thaddeus Gracyzk, "If you're exposed to these microorganisms more, the risk is higher for getting some sort of disease."

At the pool, the same goes--more people, more risk of contamination. Since a pool is essentially a communal bathing area, swimmers need to take an active role in hygiene, starting with keeping the water clean. Anyone entering the pool should thoroughly rinse off beforehand. "People are covered in contamination," Beach explains. "It's best to put that down the drain and not in the pool." In order to ensure that the water stays clean, any diaper changing should take place in the pool bathroom or far from the beach shoreline.

Those who have had diarrhea within the previous two weeks should skip swimming altogether. They can introduce a number of contaminants like cryptosporidium, a microscopic parasite that causes almost one third of recreational water illness outbreaks. Cryptosporidium is especially troublesome because some strains are resistant to the chlorine that pools use to wipe out germs. The only way to avoid its introduction into the pool, says Beach, is if sick swimmers steer clear of swimming.

If anything seems off at the beach or pool--any foul odors, things floating in the water or a sick swimmer--don't be afraid to speak up and ask the staff about their maintenance. At a pool, they should be able to tell you about their water-testing records and how they did on their last ranking. Open your mouth to let someone know when things seem off, but definitely keep it closed in the water--one of the fastest ways to catch a disease is by taking a big gulp. "People tend to think of pool water as sterilized with chlorine," says Beach. "That's definitely not the case."

With these tips in mind, go ahead, take the plunge.