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Before You Cool off in a Pool, Lake or the Ocean, Protect Yourself Against What May Be Lurking in the Water

Now that summer has arrived, many people – including children – will enjoy swimming to cool off from the hot California sun in swimming pools, water parks, lakes and the ocean.

However, what many may not know is that there could be a health hazard lurking in the water, and they need to take safety precautions to avoid what could become a serious illness.

Germs and illnesses

“Recreational water illnesses are infections caused by germs that can survive and/or grow in swimming pools, hot tubs, oceans and lakes — as well as in the water at water parks and splash pads,” noted Dr. Daisy Dodd, an Infectious Disease Specialist with Kaiser Permanente Southern California. “These illnesses are spread by either swallowing, coming into contact with or breathing in aerosolized mists of germ-containing water.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most recreational water illnesses are caused by the water contamination that occurs when someone who is ill and carrying germs enters the water. In other cases, these illnesses are caused when germs that naturally live in water grow to levels that can cause an infection.

The following have been identified as the most common types of recreational water illnesses:

  • Diarrheal infections.
  • Skin infections, such as “hot tub rash.”
  • Swimmer’s ear.
  • Respiratory infections caused by breathing in a mist of germs, usually while in a hot tub.

“The most commonly reported recreational water illness is diarrhea — often caused by germs such as E. coli, norovirus and Cryptosporidium,” said Dr. Dodd, who practices in Orange County. “When a person with a diarrheal illness enters the water, the entire pool can become contaminated. In turn, swallowing even just a small amount of this contaminated water is enough to result in illness.”

How do I protect my family from germs that may be in the swimming pool

Dr. Dodd offers the following tips for swimming safely:

  • If you’re a pool owner, be sure you’re keeping tabs on your pool’s water chlorine and pH levels.
  • If you’re using a public pool, ask for the pool’s inspection scores, or look them up online. In addition, pool supply stores, and even many large supermarkets, sell test strips that you can use to test chlorine and pH levels yourself.
  • Don’t swim if you’re sick or are on your period. If you (or your child) have diarrhea or are recovering from diarrhea, avoid spreading germs by getting into a pool.
  • Know how to handle a fecal incident. If you’re a pool owner, follow proper pool cleaning and remediation techniques when removing poop or diarrhea from your swimming pool. If you’re using a public pool, alert the pool staff or lifeguards of any fecal incidents immediately.
  • Take a quick shower before you swim. It’s tempting to think of a pool like a bath, but even just a quick rinse before getting in a pool can reduce the amount of dirt and sweat you bring into the water — which, in turn, can help maintain proper chlorine levels.
  • Dry your ears when you get out of the water. To prevent ear infections that occur as a result of leaving contaminated water in your ear, make sure to thoroughly dry your ears after getting out of the pool. If you have a history of ear infections, consider wearing a swim cap or ear plugs.

“It’s also important to educate your kids,” Dr. Dodd said. “Before it’s time to swim, remind your kids to avoid peeing in the pool or swallowing pool water. For younger children, schedule bathroom breaks and diaper changes every hour — making sure to change diapers in a bathroom, not poolside.”

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