How to Stay Safe and Infection-Free While Swimming

Avoid germs in the water

Girl in swimming pool, Mount Albert, Ontario
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When thinking about protecting their kids while swimming, most parents think about using life jackets, swimming lessons, and childproofing their pool, but water-borne infections are a concern as well.  How can you keep your kids safe in the water and free from these germs?

Infections From Germs in Water of Pools, Lakes, and Water Parks

Many people overlook the fact that kids can get sick from the germs in the water of pools, lakes, and water parks.

Taking some simple steps can help keep your kids—and everyone else—safe while swimming.

Germs in Water That Can Cause Infections

One danger when swimming is that water can be contaminated with germs that can cause recreational water illnesses (RWIs), including:

  • Diarrhea, which can be caused by swallowing water contaminated with parasites, bacteria, and viruses, including Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Salmonella, Shigella, Norovirus, or even E. coli 0157:H7. These germs can get in the water when someone with an infection has a stooling accident in their diaper or in the water, has some of the germs or feces on their bottom, or the water is contaminated with sewage.
  • Pink eye - The category of viruses known as adenoviruses can cause not only pink eye, but also croup, colds and sore throats, and diarrhea.
  • Molluscum contagiosum - Molluscum conagiosum is a rash similar to a wart which is caused by a poxvirus. Although it may not be spread in swimming pool water, it can likely be spread by sharing swimming pool towels and toys with a child who has molluscum.
  • Hepatitis A, a viral infection that affects the liver, causing jaundice, abdominal pain, fatigue, nausea, and fever. Although often associated with contaminated food, it is also possible to less commonly get hepatitis A from contaminated water.
    Naegleria, a rare, although extremely serious, and often fatal infection caused by the Naegleria fowleri ameba that is sometimes found in warm freshwater ponds and lakes, and has been coined with the unfortunate name of "brain eating ameba.'

    Chlorine and Water Germs

    Doesn't chlorine kill all of these germs in the water? Chlorine does kill most of these germs, but it can take up to an hour for the chlorine in a properly maintained pool to work. That means that if a child has diarrhea and gets in the pool and your child gets in right after him, that may not be enough time for the chlorine in the pool to kill any germs from the sick child.

    And unfortunately, it can take almost a week for chlorine to kill the Cryptosporidium parasite.

    Preventing Recreational Water Illnesses

    In addition to teaching your child to not swallow water when swimming or playing in the water, you can help keep your child and everyone else healthy in the water if you:

    • Keep your child out of the water when he has diarrhea, pink eye, hepatitis A, or other contagious diseases.
    • Don't let your child in the water if he has an open wound, since it could become infected.
    • Don't let your child in the water if he has a draining wound, especially MRSA, since it could infect others.
    • Don't share pool or beach towels.
    • Encourage your child to take a shower or bath before swimming.
    • Encourage your child to wash his hands after using the bathroom, especially if he is going to get back in the water.
    • Take younger children to the bathroom frequently so that they are less likely to have accidents in the water.
    • Keep in mind that swim diapers and swim pants are not leakproof and may seep germs into the water. So check and change them frequently for your infants and toddlers who aren't yet potty trained.
    • Don't change diapers by the pool. Instead, take your child to the bathroom to change his diaper and then wash your child's bottom well and wash your hands too.
    • Cover molluscum lesions with a watertight bandage.

    Incidence of Waterborne Diseases

    How common are these infections?

    It is hard to say, as not all infections that kids catch from swimming are obviously caused by contaminated water are reported. The CDC reports that 2,698 got sick from waterborne diseases in 2003, which resulted in 58 people requiring hospitalization and one death. Most infections occurred in community swimming pools and pools, spas, and wading pools at hotels and clubs.

    Unfortunately, most experts think that cases of waterborne diseases are increasing.

    Water Safety Tips

    Of course, keeping your child safe in and around the water is also very important.

    As with most child safety measures, that usually starts with proper supervision, which is one of the best ways to keep your kids safe in the water. That means watching your kids when they are in or around water, even if they know how to swim. Remember that swim lessons don't make kids, especially younger kids, drown proof.

    Other important water safety tips include that you:

    • Childproof your swimming pool so that it is enclosed by a permanent fence (which is better than a removable pool fence) that has a self-closing and self-latching gate that is difficult for younger children to open. Also make sure that your child can't easily get out of your house to the pool area. That way, you have a "layers of protection" system and if one safety layer breaks down, such as someone leaves the gate to the pool open, your child still can't get out to the pool.
    • Have everyone wear Coast Guard-approved life jackets, and not just floaties, on boats, jet skis, and on other personal watercraft.
    • Only let kids dive in areas that are clearly marked for diving or when you know how deep the water is.
    • Only swim in designated areas in the ocean and are aware of how to escape rip currents, which can pull you out to sea, by swimming parallel to the beach (sideways), until you are out of the rip current and can swim back to shore.
    • Learn CPR.
    • Apply sunscreen or sunblock on your children at least 15 to 30 minutes before going out in the sun to avoid sunburn, and then reapply it at least every two hours, especially if your child has been in the water.
    • Have a phone nearby, so that you can quickly call for help when necessary.

    Sources:

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recreational Water Illnesses. Updated 02/05/15. http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/rwi/

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Healthy Swimming. Updated 02/22/16. http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/

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