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How Recreational Water Can Make You Sick

Water is tremendous fun. Lots of people love to swim, surf, and paddle on a hot summer’s day, but what we often fail to think about are all the germs, debris, and nasty chemicals lurking in swimming pools, hot tubs, streams, lakes, rivers, and oceans.

Recreational water illnesses (RWIs) are no joke. A Sunday afternoon dip in the local creek could leave you fighting a serious illness. Even sitting in a communal hot tub could be dangerous, as this article about getting sick from a hot tub will attest. Anything that discourages millions of Americans from taking exercise is not a good thing, but it’s important to take RWIs seriously.

What are Recreation Water Illnesses?

An RWI is an infection or illness caused by a water-borne organism. Nobody is safe from RWIs. Even if you wear a rubber wetsuit and don’t swallow the water, you could pick up an eye or ear infection. Your best chance of avoiding common water-borne infections and diseases is to be vigilant and take steps to prevent contamination.

How Infection Occurs

Never swallow water in pools, rivers, swimming holes, and hot tubs. Even in a chlorinated swimming pool, there are some organisms that can survive for several days. Most infections occur when people swallow contaminated water or organisms get into their ears and eyes. It’s very easy to accidentally swallow some water and most kids do it all the time.

Bugs and other harmful organisms live in untreated water, so swimming in streams and other natural bodies of water is more dangerous than taking a dip in your local pool. However, if water hasn’t been treated properly or people jump in without washing their hands or bodies, parasites and bacteria can contaminate treated water, causing other people to get sick.

Common RWIs

By far the most common recreational water illnesses are skin problems, ear infections, and gastrointestinal complaints. Hot tub rash or dermatitis, swimmer’s ear, and a bout of sickness and diarrhea caused by E-coli bacteria are common in kids and adults who spend a lot of recreation time in the water. Such illnesses are rarely serious, and most people recover with the aid of some over-the-counter medication and a brief spell away from the water.

Legionnaire’s Disease is more serious. Legionella can be caught by inhaling contaminated water droplets in hot tubs and swimming pools. A Legionella infection can be deadly in some people, but with the right treatment, you should be OK. If you develop pneumonia-like symptoms after enjoying some recreational water activity, visit your doctor immediately.

Risk Factors

Healthy adults are unlikely to pick up any serious infections from recreational water activities. The people most at risk are babies and young children because their immune systems are not as robust. Older people aged 50+ are also more at risk of water-transmitted infections.

The best way to avoid any infections is to stick to clean swimming pools and hot tubs. Try to keep your head above water and don’t swim if you’ve been poorly recently.

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