By Pamela Weintraub, Experience Life
Sharks in the water! Chlorine that seals your contact lenses to your eyes! Antibiotic-resistant bacteria on the beaches! When it comes to recreational swimming, it can be tough to differentiate between overblown fears and more common (and manageable) health hazards.
Swimming is one of summer’s best-loved activities, providing ample fitness benefits in the company of friends — yet it often provokes anxiety. And the truth is, swimming does carry some risks: Open water can carry viral infections from sewage; chlorinated pool water can provoke asthma; and cloudy lakes may contain cyanobacteria, known to carry neurotoxins and cause disease. But with a little awareness, these hazards can be negotiated. By staying alert to red flags and following some simple safety guidelines, recreational swimmers can splash around safely.
Concern: Bacterial and Viral Infections
Source: Oceans, rivers, lakes, pools and hot tubs. In natural bodies of water and outdoor pools, bacterial and viral infections, otherwise known as recreational water illnesses (RWIs), often come from pollution delivered by sewage or rainwater runoff. In indoor pools or crowded beaches, infections may come from other swimmers.
Symptoms: A wide variety of skin, ear, eye and respiratory issues. Gastrointestinal problems, including diarrheal illnesses, are caused by organisms ranging from Crypto (short for Cryptosporidium) and giardia to shigella and E. coli. “Viruses are assumed to be the cause of most waterborne illness, but the specific virus that causes an illness is usually unknown,” says John Wathen, a beach water expert with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C.
Avoiding risk: According to David Beckman, director of the Water Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), beachgoers can reduce their chances of getting sick by swimming only at sites where authorities test the water frequently and close the beach or issue an advisory when it is polluted. Healthy strategies include staying out of the water when there are closings or advisories, avoiding swimming near discharge pipes, and keeping dry if you have an open wound. Wathen recommends avoiding beaches for a couple of days after a heavy rain and staying attuned to murky water or foul smells. Indoors or out, make sure that your pool water is properly and adequately treated with an anticontaminant.
Following exposure: Rinse off well. Clean skin abrasions. Dry out your ears. Take a shower and wash swimsuits and towels as soon as possible.