Avoiding Recreational Water Illnesses

By Anthony Carotenuto, Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center, Preventive Medicine staff

Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jon Dasbach treads water during the 2nd class petty officer swim qualification at Scott Pool at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist David Rush)
Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jon Dasbach treads water during the 2nd class petty officer swim qualification at Scott Pool at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist David Rush)

The week before Memorial Day (May 20–26, 2013) is Recreational Water Illness and Injury (RWII) Prevention Week. According to the Centers for Disease Control, thousands of Americans get sick every year with recreational water illnesses (RWIs), which are caused by germs found in places where we swim. The goal of RWII Prevention Week is to raise awareness about healthy and safe swimming.

Have your eyes ever started to sting and turn red while you were swimming in a pool? Did you think it was because of the chlorine in the water? It’s not actually the chlorine that makes your eyes red. It is chloramines. This chemical forms when chlorine used to disinfect the water combines with what comes out or washes off of swimmers’ bodies (e.g., urine, sweat and personal care products) and can irritate the eyes and lungs and can even aggravate asthma.  Chloramines also uses up the chlorine in the pool, which would otherwise kill germs.

These germs get into the water when they wash off of swimmers’ bodies or when infected swimmers have diarrhea in the water. Chlorine and other pool water treatments don’t kill germs instantly. And just one diarrheal incident can release enough germs into the water that swallowing a mouthful can cause diarrhea lasting up to 2–3 weeks.

Swimmers, It’s Our Job to Keep Germs, Bodily Waste out of the Water

We all share the water we swim in, and we each need to do our part to keep ourselves, our families, and our friends healthy. To help protect yourself and other swimmers from germs, here are a few simple and effective steps all swimmers can take each time we swim:

  • Keep the bodily waste out of the water.
    • Don’t swim when you have diarrhea.
    • Shower with soap before you start swimming.
    • After taking a long break from the water, take a rinse shower before you return to the water.
    • Take bathroom breaks every 60 minutes.
    • Wash your hands after using the toilet or changing diapers.
  • Check the chlorine and pH levels before getting into the water.
    • Proper chlorine (1–3 mg/L or parts per million [ppm]) and pH (7.2–7.8) levels maximize germkilling power
    • Most superstores, hardware stores, and poolsupply stores sell pool test strips.
  • Don’t swallow the water you swim in.

Parents of young children should take a few extra steps:

  • Take children on bathroom breaks every 60 minutes or check diapers every 30–60 minutes.
    • Change diapers in the bathroom or diaperchanging area and not at poolside where germs can rinse into the water.

Remember … Think Healthy. Swim Healthy. Be Healthy!

For more information about healthy swimming, visit http://www.med.navy.mil/sites/nmcphc/program-and-policy-support/swimming-pools-and-bathing-places/Pages/default.aspx.