Surprising Health Risk Linked to Swimming in the Ocean

Before you don that wet suit and head for the ocean, you might want to consider a shocking new study that found surfing may put you at risk for an unexpected health problem—an Escherichia. coli (E. coli) infection. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Exeter, found that surfers were three times more likely to have antibiotic-resistant E. coli in their gut than non-surfers.

Scientists compared fecal samples from surfers and non-surfers alike and found that nine percent of surfers were found to harbor the infection compared to only 3 percent of non-surfers. They found that the E. coli found in the surfers’ gut was able to grow in the presence of cefotaxime (also known as Claforan), an antibiotic commonly used in the treatment of E. coli infections, thereby showing the bacteria had formed resistance to the drug.

E. coli is a bacterial infection that normally spreads through contact with fecal matter. So how are surfers and bodyboarders coming into contact with fecal matter in the ocean? Because the research is the first of its kind to show the link between bacteria found in fecal matter with ocean sports, the scientists haven’t been definitive about the source of the bacteria, but there are numerous possible ways. Some of the ways fecal matter may be making its way into the ocean include: dumping of untreated waste products by towns and cities directly into the ocean—a practice which sadly still exists, run-off from crops fertilized with manure, and animals that leave deposits on beaches that ultimately find their way into the ocean.

While many strains of E. coli may be present in the intestines of humans, antibiotic resistant ones are of particular concern because the bacteria have demonstrated sufficient intelligence to outsmart what we once believed were our best medicines against them—antibiotics. Some strains may cause symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal cramps, while others are often linked to pneumonia, breathing problems, seizures, urinary tract infections (UTIs) and even acute kidney failure, which is life-threatening. A whopping 75 to 95 percent of UTI infections have been linked to E. coli.

E. coli are doubly dangerous: not only do the bacteria cause infections that lead to many health problems but they can also secrete harmful toxins known as Shiga or STEC, which is short for Shiga-Toxin-producing E. Coli which can make you sick by damaging the lining of the intestines.

The researchers believe that surfers are more vulnerable to E. coli infections because they swallow up to 10 times more water than sea swimmers. While this study only examined the E. coli against cefotamime, many E. coli infections are known to be resistant to other antibiotics including tetracycline, ampicillin, streptomycin, among others.

Should you stop surfing, bodyboarding or other ocean activities if you enjoy them? Of course not. But it is important to be aware of the risks and of course make an effort to avoid swallowing the water as much as possible. While more research is needed on the surfing-resistant E. coli connection, additional research is needed in the search for better treatment of the infection.

Fortunately, there is research that shows certain herbal medicines like chives, dandelion and mullein demonstrate effectiveness against E. coli infections.

A study published in the medical journal Molecules found that a chive extract demonstrated antibacterial action against the 5 strains of bacteria it was tested against, including E. coli. Scientists from that natural compounds found in dandelion showed high antibacterial activity against E. coli and other bacteria. In other laboratory tests, researchers found that mullein extract was effective against E. coli and other bacteria. Eating more of these foods or drinking them in tea form may not be sufficient against such aggressive bacteria, so if you wish to treat an E. coli infection with these herbs be sure to use more potent extracts and work with a skilled health professional. Of course, be sure to see your physician at the first sign of an infection.

Sauerkraut is one of the most overlooked superfoods that, in preliminary research, demonstrates effectiveness against E. coli bacteria thanks to its plentiful amounts of Lactobacillus plantarum and L. mesenteroides. More research is needed to determine the viability of this possible therapeutic application but considering there are no harmful effects of eating more sauerkraut, it is worth considering. You’ll need to eat ones found in the refrigerator section of your health food or grocery store and be sure they contain live cultures since pasteurized varieties of this food have none of the health-promoting probiotics.

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Dr. Michelle Schoffro Cook, PhD, DNM is the publisher of the free e-news World’s Healthiest News, the Cultured Cook, president of ScentsationalWellness, and an international best-selling and 20-time published book author whose works include: The Cultured Cook: Delicious Fermented Foods with Probiotics to Knock Out Inflammation, Boost Gut Health, Lose Weight & Extend Your Life.

43 comments

Marie W
Marie W2 months ago

thanks for sharing

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John B
John B7 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

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heather g
heather g7 months ago

Many areas in Canada don't have clean sea water. In the summer, beaches are regularly closed because of the high fecal count. I love swimming in the sea, but not here!

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Danuta W
Danuta W7 months ago

thank you for sharing

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Glennis W
Glennis W8 months ago

Also have to be careful of sharks and sea wasps Thank you for caring and sharing

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Glennis W
Glennis W8 months ago

Very informative Thank you for caring and sharing

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Glennis W
Glennis W8 months ago

Great information and advice Thank you for caring and sharing

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Glennis W
Glennis W8 months ago

Very interesting article Thank you for caring and sharing

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Jetana A
Jetana A8 months ago

The oceans should not be used as a sewer!

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Roxana S
Roxana Saez8 months ago

TYFS

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