Be Aware of Waterborne Illness
Summer is a great time to enjoy water-based recreation. The warm weather beckons us to cool off in beaches, lakes, rivers and community pools. We pack up our summer gear—sunglasses, sunscreen, swimsuits, water shoes, wide-brimmed hat—and head out for a day of recreation on the water. We may think we’ve got all our water safety bases covered if we have sunscreen and floatation devices, but there’s more to water safety than that!
There could be something lurking in the water that you can’t see. Forget sharks, the scariest thing in the water is recreational water illnesses! Every year, millions of people are sickened by bacteria, viruses and chemicals in recreational bodies of water. So many, in fact, that researchers estimated the cost of this summertime hazard at about $3 billion every year. While that’s a surprisingly large price tag, the same researchers suggest it’s not a widespread problem.
“At 90 million illnesses out of an estimated 4 billion total water recreation events annually in the U.S., the number of people who get sick is around 2 percent,” said Samuel Dorevitch, Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Illinois Chicago’s School of Public Health. “However, it’s not easy to identify the number of illnesses that result from water recreation. If somebody gets sick a couple days after swimming and visits their doctor, the root cause of the illness – bacteria or viruses in the water – may not be recognized or investigated.”
While that is true, something that is statistically unlikely to happen still feels quite impactful when it happens to you. And keep in mind that older adults are at the highest risk of contracting waterborne illnesses. The most common symptoms of recreational water illnesses such as Legionnaire’s disease, norovirus or giardia are diarrhea, skin rashes, ear pain, cough or congestion, and eye pain.
- Avoid swimming in water that looks dirty or smells. Potentially harmful algae blooms are sometimes visible, and polluted water might smell bad.
- Shower before and after swimming. This helps prevent people from bringing germs into the water and helps wash off any potentially harmful bacteria afterward.
- Keep your mouth out of the water. This is especially important if swimming in a natural body of water like a river or lake.
- Do not swim with a cut or open wound. If it can’t be avoided, cover the cut or wound with waterproof bandages.
Follow these simple precautions to stay safe while enjoying opportunities for water recreation this summer.
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your health care provider.