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Invisible pool guests can cause kids to get sick

Article by: Michael Beach, Ph.D.
CDC, National Center for Infectious Diseases

When it comes to water safety, most people are aware of diving injuries, drowning, and sunburn; few people think about getting ill from going swimming. The most common waterborne infections reported to CDC cause diarrhea. Most are reported during the summer swimming season Memorial Day to Labor Day*.

Although swimming is a great deal of fun, remember that swimming is essentially communal bathing. Water gets contaminated when someone has a fecal accident, releasing microscopic germs. When this contaminated water is swallowed by other swimmers, they can get sick. Chlorine is the most common pool disinfectant used to kill germs, and while it works well against most germs, it doesn’t kill all of them. Therefore the best way to avoid getting sick from swimming is to keep germs out of the pool in the first place and to remember not to swallow swimming water.

If you head for the water this Memorial Day weekend, follow these safety tips to protect yourself, your child, and others from getting sick.

Healthy Swimming Tips

  • DO NOT enter the water if you have diarrhea. (People can spread germs in the water even without having an "accident.")
  • DO NOT swallow the water! (Remember: it’s everybody’s bath water and chlorine does not kill all germs.)
  • DO wash your hands and bottom thoroughly with soap and water after a bowel movement or changing diapers. (Germs on hands end up everywhere, including the water.)
  • DO notify the lifeguard if you see fecal matter in the water or if you see persons changing diapers on tables and chairs.

Healthy Swimming Tips for Parents

  • DO take your child to the toilet for bathroom breaks often. (Waiting to hear "I have to go" may mean it’s too late.)
  • DO change diapers in a bathroom, not near the pool or shore. (Germs can contaminate surfaces and objects around the water.)
  • DO wash your child thoroughly (especially his or her bottom) with soap and water before swimming. (Everyone has invisible amounts of fecal matter on his or her bottom that ends up in the water.)
  • DO NOT count on swim diapers or pants to keep fecal matter from leaking into the water. (These products are not leakproof. Remember to take your child to the toilet often.)
  • DO keep an eye on your child at all times. (Remember, kids can drown in silence).
  • DO protect your child against sunburn by using a sunscreen with at least SPF 15 and both UVA and UVB protection, and be sure to re-apply it after swimming. (Even a few serious sunburns can increase the risk of getting skin cancer.)
  • DO NOT allow your child to chew gum or eat while swimming or playing in the water. (Chewing or eating while swimming could cause choking)
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