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1. Take those "no swimming" signs seriously. If your local health department has posted a particular swimming hole off limits, find another place to cool off.
|Swimming pools, hot tubs and local lakes and beaches can be dangerous places, but not just because of the risk of drowning. Water can play host to disease-carrying organisms with such alien-sounding names as Cryptosporidium, E. coli and Shigella. |
These small but potent bugs are rarely life-threatening, except to people with immune system disorders such as AIDS. Even if you don't fall into this category, exposure to these microorganisms can result in some unpleasant symptoms.
| | Three Bad Bugs
Here are a few of the most serious waterborne pathogens:
Cryptosporidium: In March and April 1993, an outbreak of cryptosporidiosis in Milwaukee caused serious gastrointestinal upset in an estimated 400,000 people. An investigation indicated the nasty bug had bypassed the filtration system of one of the local water treatment plants. It's a tough waterborne illness to kill, particularly for those whose immune system has been compromised.
Escherichia coli: Most people know E. coli which can cause diarrhea and other gastrointestinal illness as a food-related bacteria. In fact, you're more likely to be infected with E. coli after eating an undercooked hamburger than from diving into your local pool. However, it is possible to get an E. coli infection while swimming. For example, an E. coli outbreak in Battle Ground Lake in Oregon in 1999 sickened nearly 30 swimmers. And in 1998, at least nine children were infected with a particularly nasty strain of E. coli while swimming at a water park in Georgia.
E. coli normally makes its home in the intestines of warm-blooded animals, including humans. Swimmers can become infected if the water is contaminated with fecal matter, as reportedly was the case in the Georgia outbreak the first known instance in which E. coli was transmitted in a chlorinated pool. However, the greatest threats of swimming-related E. coli contamination have been near lake water.
Shigella: In one 1995 shigellosis outbreak at a Pennsylvania lake, 70 people were infected. In another outbreak, this one in 1991, 38 people, most of them children, came down with this gastrointestinal disease after swimming in an Oregon lake. Researchers believe the source was fecal contamination. Like E. coli, Shigella is a form of intestinal bacteria.
Most of these infections result in nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, but some waterborne illnesses can be much more serious.
All waterborne illnesses are transmitted through fecal matter sometimes from wildlife or farm animals, but often from humans. Not a pretty thought, but increasingly a concern for the folks who run public swimming pools and water parks, with implications for any parent with a child still in diapers. A few pathogens in particular are linked to some serious outbreaks. (See "Three Bad Bugs.")
There's probably no way to completely shield yourself from waterborne pathogens, but it is possible to minimize your exposure. Here's how:
More than 300 children younger than age 5 drown each year in residential swimming pools, and hospital emergency rooms treat more than 2,000 children younger than age 5 for submersion injuries, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Here's how to safeguard your child:
Never leave toddlers alone near a pool.
Don't assume baby pools are safe. The American Red Cross reports that 15 percent of home drownings occur in wading pools, toilets, buckets and other small containers of water.
Fence the area around the pool, whether the pool is in-ground or above ground, and lock the gates.
Add an alarm system to your pool to notify you if someone enters the water when no one is there to supervise.
Learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation in cases that call for resuscitation, seconds count when it comes to preventing death or permanent injury.
2. Ask for records. Any public pool should have daily records on chlorination and how often the pool is cleaned and treated. If your local pool can't provide these records, don't swim there.
3. Keep your mouth closed. Try not to swallow the water while you swim, and tell your kids to do the same.
4. If you have a kiddy pool at home, change the water daily. Empty out the wading pool and leave it to dry overnight. When you have standing, still water, the risk of infection grows, and some of the microbes that multiply in standing water can cause serious illness.
5. Do your bit to prevent disease transmission. Take a shower before you use the local pool. If you have a child in diapers, consider swaddling his or her little rear end in specially made "swimming" diapers or plastic pants. And bear in mind that even these won't prevent all leakage.
Last updated October 29, 2008
Water can play host to disease-carrying organisms.
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