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Being Aware of Recreational Water Illness may provide a safe summer of swimming

Jenny Decker RN's picture

Summer is a time of having fun. School is out, it is hot and the family needs to cool down in a recreational way. When swimming in a lake, the ocean, a public swimming pool, or whatever venue you choose, there are specific risks to beware of. The Centers for Disease Control and the Environmental Health Services (EHS) are hosting the Recreational Water Illness and Prevention Week between May 21st and May 27th with an emphasis on drowning and using health education to reduce the spread of recreational water illness.

Recreational water illness, also known as RWI, can be prevented, or decreased through knowledge about how it is acquired. Knowledge can be power in relation to this public health issue. Chlorine is commonly thought to kill all germs that can possibly enter pool or hot tub water, but this is not necessarily the case. For example, Cryptosporidium is relatively tolerant to chlorine and it can take days before it is destroyed by the chlorine. However, other organisms are not as tolerant and they may be susceptible to the chlorine almost immediately. No matter how fast the bugs are killed, the key to controlling the water illnesses is to keep chlorine at recommended levels.

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Some of the most common infections that a person can get from swimming in an infected pool or water include infections of the gastrointestinal tract, skin, respiratory infections, the eye, neurologic infections, and wounds. The most commonly reported is diarrhea and of the diarrheal causing bacteria, Cryptosporidium is the highest offender. According to the CDC and EHS, over the last 20 years there has been a significant increase in recreational water illnesses. A part of this is that many of the bugs in the water are more tolerant of the chlorine than in the past. And some of the bugs in the water have not been known to cause human illness until recently.

So how does one protect themselves and their family from getting sick while swimming? Education about how the recreational water illness is spread and learning about how to keep healthy pools is essential. Spreading of the organisms can happen just by swallowing water or breathing in mists and aerosols. Even just a simple contact with affected water can cause illness. Chemicals have also been known to cause illness. Being aware of the problem can be a number one protector if the person is willing to act on that awareness. So, avoiding swallowing water can be a big step. Taking a shower and washing down with soap before getting into the swimming pool may help prevent spread of any germs on your body to others. If you have diarrhea, do not go swimming. As a last step, washing your hands after using the toilet or changing a diaper is essential to spreading disease.

One more area of action can protect you and your family from getting recreational water illness. You can check the pool water yourself with test strips. The quality of the water should be: Free chlorine levels 1-3 parts per million with a pH of 7.2-7.8. You may also ask the pool operator if the pool is checked at least twice a day, what the latest inspection score was, and if he or she has had specialized training in operating a pool.

Advocacy for safety is a great action to take. Encouraging pool operators to take all known steps to kill germs in pools such as ultraviolet or ozone technology for water treatment in the pool and to hyperchlorinate on an a regular basis. And last of all, spread the education to family and friends! In the end, this can help decrease the spread of recreational water illness. May you have a wonderful and safe summer full of happy and healthy swimming! You can find more about protecting yourself and others at the Centers for Disease Control website.