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Tips To Prevent Recreational Water Illness

Armen Hareyan's picture

Swimming pool season is almost here, and while nothing can beat the heat like a refreshing dip, nothing can ruin the fun faster than picking up an illness at the pool. The week prior to Memorial Day, May 19 through 25, 2008, has been designated National Recreational Water Illness Prevention Week to highlight the importance of healthy swimming behaviors in preventing illnesses. As part of this health observance, the Tennessee Department of Health is urging Tennesseans to practice healthy swimming behaviors.

"While we always stress safety while swimming, it's important to remind Tennessee citizens and visitors of the risks of becoming sick while swimming, and the simple steps they can follow to reduce those risks," said Commissioner of Health Susan R. Cooper, MSN, RN. "We want everyone to keep their swimming activities safe and healthy."

Recreational water illnesses, or RWIs, are spread by swallowing, breathing or having contact with contaminated water from swimming pools, spas, lakes, rivers or oceans. Germs on and in swimmers' bodies end up in the water and can make other people sick. RWIs can cause a wide variety of symptoms, including gastrointestinal, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic and wound infections. The most commonly reported RWI is diarrhea. Diarrheal illnesses can be caused by germs such as Cryptosporidium, Shigella, norovirus and E. coli O157:H7. Even healthy swimmers can get sick from RWIs, but the young, elderly, pregnant women and immunosuppressed persons are especially at risk. Some infections, like Shigella, are more common among children, as children may not practice good hygiene.

Cryptosporidium outbreaks reported nationwide have doubled in the last three years, with 27 reported last year. Because of the rise in cryptosporidium reporting and the increased attention to RWI outbreaks, TDOH officials are investigating more recreational waterborne outbreaks than ever before. TDOH encourages notification regarding possible RWI outbreaks; you may contact your local health department or call 615-741-7247 to report illnesses.

"The Tennessee Department of Health works actively to recognize, investigate and report outbreaks of recreational water illness," said Assistant State Public Health Veterinarian Rand Carpenter, DVM. "Investigating and reporting these outbreaks allows us to learn from them and prevent future outbreaks. Our epidemiologists are working closely with the health department environmentalists who inspect Tennessee's swimming pools to educate them and the pool operators about these illnesses. Public awareness is also an important component of our prevention effort."

Awareness of RWIs and healthy swimming behaviors plays an important role in stopping disease transmission. The following behaviors promote healthy swimming:

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* Stay away from pools and do not swim when you have diarrhea.

* Avoid swallowing pool water or getting pool water in your mouth.

* Adults and children should shower before swimming.

* Ensure children take frequent bathroom breaks.

* Change children's diapers frequently and in a bathroom, not at poolside.

* Wash your hands after using the toilet or changing diapers.

The Tennessee Department of Health, Division of General Environmental Health is responsible for the inspection of all of the state's 4,800 public swimming pools. Environmental health specialists inspect each public swimming pool at least monthly while the pool is open. Environmentalists also investigate complaints about public pools.

Recreational water venues are important sites for exercise and leisure. To make this summer a healthy swimming experience, the Tennessee Department of Health urges swimmers to continue to enjoy swimming, but only after adopting healthy swimming behaviors to reduce the risk of recreational water illnesses.