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Message from the State Health Officer

Donald E. Williamson, M.D.

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Prevent Recreational Water Illnesses

Swimming is an enjoyable way to be physically active and keep cool during the hot days of summer, but it is important that you protect yourself and other swimmers by following practices to prevent the transmission of infectious disease in community swimming pools and other recreational water venues.

Recreational Water Illnesses, or RWIs, are caused by germs spread to people by swallowing, breathing in vapors of, or having contact with contaminated water in swimming pools, water parks, hot tubs, fountains, lakes, rivers, springs, ponds, or oceans. Germs on and in swimmers’ bodies end up in the water and can make other people sick.

Diarrhea is the most common RWI, and germs like Crypto (an abbreviation of Cryptosporidium), Giardia, norovirus, Shigella, and E. coli O157:H7 often cause it. Other common RWIs include skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic, and wound infections. Children, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems are most at risk.

RWIs cause several types of health problems including gastrointestinal illness; eye infections and irritation; hepatitis; wound infections; skin infections; respiratory illness; ear infections and even neurologic infections.

Even healthy swimmers can get sick from RWIs, but young children, elderly people, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems are at special risk. Taking steps to keep germs out of the pool is best, so follow these recommendations to help prevent RWIs:

  • Never swim if you have diarrhea.
  • Shower with soap before and after swimming.
  • Wash your hands after using the toilet or changing diapers.
  • Take children on frequent bathroom breaks and check diapers often.
  • Check and change diapers in a bathroom or a diaper-changing area, not at poolside.
  • Do not swallow the water.

Past outbreaks have emphasized the importance of parents being alert to symptoms of illness after a child swims. If the child has nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal cramps, parents should seek medical attention for their child. Symptoms can appear up to 10 days after exposure. People with diarrhea caused by potential waterborne pathogens should not use swimming pools, water slides, and water parks for two weeks after symptoms resolve.

A recent national study found that more than half of pools tested had evidence of fecal contamination. It is important that pool operators keep pools clean with the use of chemicals to control the growth of pathogens and regulate the pH, and read and follow directions for pool chemical use and storage. 

Knowing the basic RWI facts and observing healthy recreational water rules can make the difference between a fun-filled day at the pool, beach or water park, and having diarrhea, getting a rash, or even developing serious illnesses. Be smart, safe, and prevent RWIs.

(June 2015)

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