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Reduce Infection Risks While Swimming

What’s better on a hot summer day than a dip in the pool, pond or ocean? It’s part of what makes this time of year special. Mary LaSalvia, MD, Clinical Director of BIDMC’s Division of Infectious Diseases, has shared some healthy swimming advice to help keep your hot weather recreation plans afloat this summer.

As LaSalvia underscores, water in pools, ponds and oceans is perfectly safe to enjoy, provided everyone acts responsibly.

“Most public pools monitor their chlorine systems very carefully.” she says. “As long as the levels of chlorine and other sanitizing chemicals are properly maintained, most harmful microorganisms that may be in the water won’t survive.”

But one microorganism can survive for several days, even in properly treated water: cryptosporidium. This microorganism typically causes a brief diarrheal illness, but people with weaker immune systems, including children and seniors, can have longer-lasting symptoms.

“If you are immunocompromised, you should pay attention to the local news for any announcements of cryptosporidium outbreaks in your area,” LaSalvia advises.

Cryptosporidium is spread through diarrhea, so staying out of the water if you have diarrhea is essential.  “This is part of why smaller kids should get out of the pool at regular intervals for a bathroom break,” LaSalvia says.  “Ideally, parents should avoid taking their children to a pool if they have a diarrheal illness.”

But as a swimmer, it can be hard to know whether cryptosporidium is lurking in the water.  LaSalvia says the best way to reduce the risk of infection is to avoid swallowing the water. “If cryptosporidium is present, even just a little swallowed water can be enough to cause an infection,” she says.

In larger bodies of water, like ponds, lakes, or even the ocean, contamination can enter the water in different ways. Water fowl and other aquatic animals can spread parasites that may cause minor allergic reactions after coming in contact with human skin. Often known as “swimmer’s itch” or “duck rash,” these types of rashes normally clear up on their own after a few days, but can last longer or require treatment in those with more sensitive skin.

LaSalvia also recommends that swimmers with open skin wounds take precautions to avoid infections. “Bacteria in pond or ocean water can cause infections in open wounds. It’s best to cover a wound with a water-resistant dressing and shower after swimming to reduce the risk of infection,” she says.

She notes that bacterial content in water can vary throughout the day, based on storm run-off, tides and other factors.  “The safest approach is to swim in an area where the water is monitored for bacteria, and follow the local recommendations for when to stay out of the water and when and where it’s safe to enter,” LaSalvia says.

LaSalvia recommends checking out online information made available by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency. These materials provide simple-to-follow tips for preventing the spread of infections in pools, as well as where to look for information from your local cities and towns about their water monitoring programs, swimming restrictions and more.

While the risk of developing swimming-related infections may be low, staying informed and using good judgment are the best ways to keep those risks from rising.