Germs in the places we swim can cause a variety of illnesses, including gastrointestinal, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic, and wound infections. Germs can get into the water in different ways: when they wash off of swimmers’ bodies, when swimmers have diarrheal incidents in the water, and even when rainwater runs off near local beaches and swim areas. Three of the most common germs that cause waterborne illnesses in Virginia are Cryptosporidium, Giardia, and Vibrio.
Cryptosporidium (commonly known as “Crypto”), the leading cause of disease outbreaks linked to pools, is a parasite that can survive in properly chlorinated pools for more than 10 days. Crypto is spread by swallowing water polluted with fecal matter containing Crypto. Symptoms of Crypto include watery diarrhea and abdominal cramping, and can last one to two weeks. People at greatest risk for severe illness include young children, pregnant women, and individuals with weakened immune systems. In 2011–2012, >70 outbreaks linked to pools, water playgrounds, and hot tubs/spas were detected in the United States. Half of these outbreaks were caused by Crypto.
Vibrio is a group of bacteria that can cause potentially serious illness called vibriosis. The bacteria are naturally found in salt and brackish (i.e., somewhat salty) waters. Vibrio thrive in warm waters and thus cause more infections during the summer months. Vibrio infection can occur when the bacteria enter the body through a break in the skin while a person is in salt or brackish water or while handling raw fish or shellfish caught from these waters. This can cause skin breakdown and sores that become painful, red, and/or swollen. Among people with weakened immune systems or liver disease, the bacteria can enter the blood and cause life-threatening illness with fever and chills, decreased blood pressure, and/or blistering skin lesions. To prevent Vibrio wound infections, it is important to avoid exposing open wounds or cuts to salt or brackish water. If exposed, wash the affected area right away with soap and clean water. Antibiotic ointment or hydrogen peroxide can also be used as directed to clean wounds. If the wound shows signs of an infection, such as swelling or redness, visit a healthcare provider right away.
Prevent recreational water illnesses by following these simple steps.
- Don’t swim when you have diarrhea. Just one diarrheal incident can release enough germs into the water that swallowing a mouthful can cause diarrhea lasting 2-3 weeks.
- Don’t swallow pool water, and don’t drink water directly from streams, lakes, or other bodies of water.
- Practice good hygiene. Shower with soap before swimming and wash your hands with soap after using the toilet or changing diapers. Germs on your body end up in the water.
- Avoid exposing open wounds or cuts to salt or brackish water. If exposed, wash the affected area right away with soap and clean water.
- If you become ill, visit your primary healthcare provider.
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