Summer is fully underway, and kids and parents are enjoying fun in the sun at both public and private pools. However, there are some things UnityPoint Health would like you to keep in mind before you take another dip. Pools can contain dangerous bacteria that can make you or your kids sick. If the appropriate precautions aren’t met, swimming can also be deadly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 10 people die daily from drowning; of those, two will be children age 14 or younger. UnityPoint Health providers and nurses are helping you stay healthy and out of harm’s way as we dive through the summer months.
What’s in the Pool
Besides water, there can be a lot of dangerous bacteria lurking in pools and hot tubs. Most of the bacteria found are in feces.
“Urine is mostly sterile, so that doesn’t bother me quite as much as poop in the pool,” Nicole Baumann-Blackmore, M.D., pediatrician at UnityPoint Health says. “Everyone’s stool is filled with bacteria, which can make people sick if ingested.”
Chlorine can kill most bacteria within an hour, but not all. That’s why it’s so important to shower and wash off any dangerous bacteria both before and after using the pool. Showering for just one minute removes most dirt or anything else on your body that uses up pool chemicals. You should avoid pools all together if you have diarrhea or an open skin sore. It’s important to note some people are particularly susceptible to infection, such as young children, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems.
The CDC says many recreational water illnesses (RWIs) are caused by germs spreading when you swallow or have contact with any contaminated water in swimming pools, water parks, water play areas, lakes, rivers or oceans. The most commonly reported RWI is diarrhea. Diarrheal illnesses can be caused by germs such as Cryptosporidium, which is known as Crypto for short.
“Cryptosporidium has become the most common cause of swimming pool-related outbreaks of diarrhea. Crypto is not killed as easily by chlorine as other bacteria and can stay alive for days, even in pools that are well-maintained and have optimal chlorine levels. Once the bacterium is in a pool, it can spread easily through the ingestion of small amounts of pool water,” Dr. Baumann-Blackmore says.
Swimmer’s Ear and How to Prevent It
In addition to diarrhea, Dr. Baumann-Blackmore says swimmer’s ear is another common pool-related illness. She says swimmer’s ear results in an estimated 2.4 million health care visits in the United States each year. It is more common in children, but can impact people of all ages.
It is caused by water sitting in the external ear canal. The wetness can lead to the growth of bacteria, which then causes drainage, redness, swelling and pain. Treatment is generally with prescription antibiotic drops that are placed directly into the ear canal. With proper treatment, most infections clear up in 7-10 days.
“For people who’ve had swimmer’s ear or seem to be prone to getting it, there are many effective ways to prevent the infection from recurring. The goal is to dry the ear canal, while also keeping the skin of the ear canal intact. Avoid using a cotton swab, but instead, use a towel to gently dry the ear canal. Using a hair dryer on cool and the lowest setting and holding it several inches from the ear can also help to dry any excess water,” Dr. Baumann-Blackmore says.
She adds that wearing ear plugs or a swim cap is a great way to prevent water from entering the ear canal in the first place.
Swimmer’s Itch and How to Treat It
Swimmer’s itch is another annoyance that can attack those seeking summer fun. It appears as a skin rash caused by an allergic reaction to certain parasites that infect waterfowl and other animals that live around freshwater lakes and ponds.
“The good news is that the parasites soon die, and the rash typically resolves on its own within a few days. Over the counter anti-itch creams and antihistamines can help with the itching. You should see your doctor if the rash lasts longer than a week or if you are concerned that you have developed a skin infection,” Dr. Baumann-Blackmore says.
What’s that Smell?
If you smell the chlorine from the pools, it’s a good clue that there’s more at work in the water than you probably want to know about. The strong chemical smell of chlorine is actually a by-product known as chloramines. Free chlorine is what binds to germs and kills them, but it can also bind to other things, like dirt, skin cells, personal care products, sweat or urine. When the free chlorine is bound, chloramines are produced, which then can turn into a gas causing the strong smell.
“Most of the time, the smell is more noticeable in indoor pool areas because of poor ventilation. If an outdoor pool smells strongly, I probably wouldn’t get in it,” Dr. Baumann-Blackmore says.
While you might think you and your kids are safe after you leave the pool, there are rare cases that can be dangerous, even deadly. This is called “secondary drowning” or “dry drowning.” It develops after water is inhaled and builds up in the lungs. The official medical terminology is pulmonary edema. If left untreated, it leads to breathing difficulties, altered mental status and even death. Symptoms usually develop minutes to hours following a full submersion event, no matter how quickly the person was rescued. Both children and adults are susceptible to secondary drowning.
“Often, the child may appear to have recovered from the initial event but then develop a cough, breathing difficulties or extreme fatigue. The exact incidence of secondary drowning is unknown, but it is thought to account for 1-2 percent of drowning-related deaths,” Dr. Baumann-Blackmore says.
If you or your child develops a cough, chest pain, difficulty breathing, extreme fatigue or altered mental status following a water submersion event, seek immediate medical care.
7 Ways to Prevent Unintentional Drowning
“Aside from birth defects, drowning is the most common cause of death for children ages 1-4 years of age, and most often, this happens in home swimming pools,” Michele Schroeder, pediatric clinical nurse specialist at UnityPoint Health says. “For every child who dies from drowning, another five receive ER care for nonfatal submersion injuries.”
Schroeder works in the emergency room and knows first-hand the dangers water can present. She shares these seven prevention tips for parents and caregivers.
- Have responsible adults actively supervise young children. This means the adult is within touching distance for preschool and younger children.
- Learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation or CPR.
- Teach children to swim with a buddy.
- Have children take swimming lessons. However, completing swimming lessons does not replace the need for supervision.
- Make sure the drain at the bottom of the deep end is visible.
- Don’t depend on swim toys, like water wings and noodles, for water safety.
- Install four-sided fencing around all home pools. Make sure they are at least 4-feet tall and completely separate the pool area from the home and yard. Use self-closing and self-latching gates that open outward with latches that are out of reach of young children.
If you have any questions about pool safety or swimming related illnesses or injuries, make sure to contact your UnityPoint Health primary care provider.