How to Prevent Recreational Water Illnesses

Q: Our local park has a decorative fountain but children are not allowed to play in it for health and safety reasons. But if it’s hot outside, what’s the harm of letting them splash around in it?

A: While it may be tempting to cool off in such a fountain, please remember that the water is likely not chlorinated or filtered. So when people, especially diaper-aged children, play in the water, they can contaminate the water with fecal matter. Swallowing even a small amount of recreational water that has been contaminated with feces can make you sick.

People need to be careful when in swimming pools, fountains, hot tubs, lakes, oceans and other bodies of water. These areas have germs that cause recreational water illnesses, which can be a wide variety of infections, including gastrointestinal, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic and wound infections. The most commonly reported illnesse is diarrhea, which is caused by germs such as Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Shigella, norovirus and E. coli.

Swimmers share the water and the germs in it. On average, people have about 0.14 grams of feces on their bottoms which, when rinsed off, can contaminate recreational water. In addition, when someone is ill with diarrhea, their stool can contain millions of germs. This means that just one person with diarrhea can easily contaminate the water in a large pool or water park.

People may not realize that although there is no standing water in interactive fountains or water play areas, the spray water will rinse any contaminants like diarrhea, vomit, and dirt down into the water holding area and be sprayed again.

Many beaches in Wisconsin are monitored by local health officials for safety in swimming. Heed signs that discourage swimming in contaminated or unsafe (due to high bacterial counts) water. Visit the WI Dept. of Health Services website for specific information on safe inland and Great Lakes swimming waters & lakes.

Contrary to popular belief, chlorine does not kill all germs instantly because germs today are very tolerant to chlorine. It can take anywhere from minutes to days for chlorine to kill them.

Here are ways to prevent Recreational Water Illnesses:

  • Keep the poop, germs, and pee out of the water.
  • Don't swim when you have diarrhea.
  • Shower with soap before you start swimming.
  • Take a rinse shower before you get back into the water.
  • Take bathroom breaks every 60 minutes.
  • Wash your hands after using the toilet or changing diapers.
  • Check the free chlorine level and pH before getting into the water.
  • Don't swallow the water you swim in.

Parents of young children should also take children on bathroom breaks every 60 minutes or check diapers every 30–60 minutes and change diapers only in the bathroom or diaper-changing area, not poolside.

By Stephanie Doine, NP, ThedaCare Physicians-Waupaca.