4 Illnesses That Can Strike Swimmers

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Summer is here, meaning it’s peak risk time for RWIs, aka recreational water illnesses. The CDC has issued a number of warnings in recent years about the danger of these water-borne illnesses, and while it’s easy to overstate the risk of contracting some of these conditions, no one wants to be sick with diarrhea, a painful ear infection … or worse. Here are some of the waterborne threats out there, and how to stay safe.


4. Brain-Eating Amoeba

Naegleria fowleri (aka the brain-eating amoeba) can be found in many warm freshwater lakes, although fatalities are extremely rare. © Randall Chancellor

Dangers: This amoeba (Naegleria fowleri) sounds like something out of a horror movie. It can enter a person’s nasal passages and travel through the olfactory nerve to the brain, where it can feed and cause fatal damage. Fatalities are extremely rare; about 140 people have died of what is known as primary amoebic meningoencephalitis since 1962. Yet it happens; a teen contracted the illness and died after visiting a North Carolina water park in 2016. Her family sued the facility this month.
How to Stay Safe: Naegleria fowleri is found in warm freshwater, primarily in the Southern U.S. It appears not just in lakes, but also in untreated swimming pools and hot tubs. And some cases have been traced to the use of tap water in neti pots. When swimming in freshwater, try to prevent water from being forced up your nasal cavity. The first symptoms can occur anywhere from two to 15 days after exposure, and can include headaches, fever, stiff neck, confusion and vomiting.


3. Swimmer’s Ear

Competitive swimmers can be susceptible to swimmer’s ear. © Kalle Hyttinen

Dangers: There’s a misconception that swimmer’s ear is caused solely by water being trapped in the outer ear canal. That’s only partly true. It’s actually an infection caused by contaminated water that remains in the ear canal, allowing germs to infect the skin.
How to Stay Safe: Doctors often recommend earplugs, but let’s face it — they’re extremely inconvenient in many situations. The best solution is to dry out your ear after swimming. Tilt your head down and shake it if necessary to move water out of the ear. Or set a hairdryer on low to dry your ear. Consult a doctor if you have pain or drainage from your ears.


2 Legionnaires’ Disease

Hot tubs are a common source of Legionnaires’ disease, which strikes up to 18,000 people in the U.S. each year. © Marc via Flickr

Dangers: Few people have even heard of this illness, and many who have assume it was an isolated outbreak many years ago (it was first diagnosed and drew its name when 29 people died after contracting it at an American Legion convention in 1976). Yet according to the CDC, some 8,000 to 18,000 people each year are hospitalized with the pneumonia caused by Legionella bacteria; about 10 percent of cases result in death.
How to Stay Safe: Hot tubs that have not been properly cleaned and disinfected are a prime breeding ground for this bacteria, which can infect a person who breathes in steam or mist from the infected water. Be wary of hotel pool/hot tub areas that look unsanitary (debris in pool, dirty towels everywhere, etc.).


1. Cryptosporidium

Crypto is the most common diarrheal waterborne illness. © Jason via Flickr

Dangers: Dubbed “Crypto” for short, this microscopic parasite can be spread in many ways, from eating contaminated food to, yes, swallowing contaminated water in swimming pools or lakes. According to the CDC, Crypto is “very tolerant to chlorine disinfection” and can stay alive for days in even properly maintained pools. The illness caused by this parasite is rarely fatal but can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea and vomiting that lasts for anywhere from a few days to a month in extreme cases.
How to Stay Safe: Crypto and other swimming-related diarrheal illnesses are spread through feces. It doesn’t take an infant or toddler having a visible accident to spread the illness. The CDC lays it out here in disgusting but true terms: “Tiny amounts of fecal matter are rinsed off all swimmers’ bottoms as they swim through the water.” Bottom line: Don’t swallow swimming pool or lake water while swimming; even a small amount is enough to make you sick. And of course, lake/river water can be infected with sewage and/or animal feces. Away from the pool, however, be sure to wash your hands, and wash all fruit and produce before eating.


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