Memorial Day is the traditional opening day of many public pools in Tennessee and the unofficial start of swimming season. While swimming is a fun way to beat the heat and be physically active, thousands of Americans get sick every year with illnesses caused by germs found in the places where we swim. The Tennessee Department of Health joins in the annual observance of Recreational Water Illness and Injury Prevention WeekMay 20-26 to spread the word about habits that help ensure healthy and safe swimming.
“All of us can help keep our swimming areas safe this summer by following a few simple steps,” said Health Commissioner John Dreyzehner, MD, MPH. “Enjoying time in the water and taking sensible precautions like having babies wear leak-proof diapers and never letting children swim without supervision helps prevent injuries and illnesses.”
Recreational Water Illness
Recreational Water Illnesses, or RWIs, are caused by germs in the water that are spread to people by swallowing, breathing in vapors of, or having contact with contaminated water in swimming pools, water parks, hot tubs, fountains, lakes, rivers, springs, ponds or oceans. RWIs cause several types of health problems including gastrointestinal illness, eye infections and irritation, hepatitis, wound infections, skin infections, respiratory illness, ear infections and even neurologic infections. The most commonly reported RWI is diarrhea. Germs on and in swimmers’ bodies end up in the water and can make other people sick. Even healthy swimmers can get sick from RWIs, but young children, elderly people, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems are especially at risk.
“Taking steps to keep germs out of the pool in the first place is the best way to prevent RWIs,” said State Epidemiologist Tim Jones, MD. “Chlorine and other pool water treatments don’t kill germs instantly, but we can protect ourselves by not swallowing water from pools or lakes, rivers and other swimming places.”
Follow these tips to help prevent RWIs:
- Don’t swim if you have diarrhea.
- Shower with soap before and after swimming.
- Wash your hands after using the toilet or changing diapers.
- Take children on frequent bathroom breaks or check diapers often.
- Change diapers in a bathroom or a diaper-changing area, not at poolside.
- Don’t swallow the water you swim in.
Illnesses and outbreaks associated with recreational water vary from year to year. In Tennessee in 2010, 14 people including four who were hospitalized were sickened in an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 associated with a community swimming pool. Illness caused by cryptosporidium and other waterborne pathogens has been on the rise in Tennessee and nationwide. Any illness or outbreak that is possibly caused by exposure to recreational water should be reported to your local health department.
In Tennessee in 2011, 69 people died from drowning, including 17 children. Near-drowning incidents leave many others with long-term consequences including memory problems, learning disabilities and other permanent impairments such as physical disability. To reduce the risk of drowning:
- Prepare by making sure:
o Everyone knows how to swim
o Older children and adults know CPR
- When in the water, keep swimmers safe by:
o Having younger and less capable swimmers use life jackets that fit
o Providing continuous, attentive supervision of swimmers even if there is a lifeguard
o Avoiding alcohol and drugs when swimming or watching swimmers
o Discouraging horseplay and stunts
- When not in the water, prevent access to the water by:
o Installing and maintaining barriers including fences and weight-bearing covers
o Using locks or alarms for windows and doors
Woody McMillian, TN Health Dept.
Shelly Walker, TN Health Dept.
For more information about healthy and safe swimming, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/.