It’s high season for summer vacations, and for millions of Americans that means trips to beach villas, lakefront cabins, and swank hotel resorts with inviting pools, bubbling hot tubs, and ornamental water fountains.
But if you’re not careful you might come home with some unwelcome souvenirs — the microbial variety you can pick up from those seemingly gleaming waters, some of which are teeming with bacteria.
According to a recent national travel survey — Rx for Travel Health — nearly two out of three American travelers (63 percent) report that they or a companion have become sick while on vacation. Bug bites, tainted food, and sun poisoning are among the most well-known causes, but swimming pools and other water facilities can also pose a hidden health threat across the nation and overseas.
In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a significant rise in the number of illnesses caused by parasites and germs living in swimming pools and hot tubs over the past 20 years. In 2011-12, tainted recreational water sources caused 1,788 illnesses, 95 hospitalizations, and one death in the U.S. alone.
The leading culprit: Cryptosporidium
, which can live for days even in well-maintained, chlorinated pools. According to the CDC, Crypto
cases have more than doubled since 2004 — from 3,411 cases in 2004 to more than 10,500.
The microbe, which can cause severe gastrointestinal distress and diarrhea, thrives in pools, Jacuzzis, fountains, lakes, rivers, springs, ponds, or streams contaminated with sewage or feces from humans or animals.
“Since 1988, the year that the first U.S. treated recreational water-associated outbreak of Cryptosporidium
was detected, the number of these outbreaks reported annually has significantly increased,” the CDC report says.
Michele Hlavsa, lead author of the report, noted the parasite is extremely chlorine-resistant.
continues to be the dominant etiology of recreational water-associated outbreaks,” she noted. “Half of all treated recreational water-associated outbreaks reported for 2011–2012 were caused by Cryptosporidium
But she added that reports of outbreaks caused by other microbes that are killed by chlorine — including E. coli, norovirus, Giardia
, and Shigella
— are also a cause for concern. In addition, the brain-eating Naegleria fowleri
amoeba, found in warm freshwater, has sickened nearly three dozen Americans, and killed several, over the past decade.
So what can you do to protect yourself? What follows are answers to common questions about water-borne germs, along with health experts’ water-safety tips.
How do microbes spread?
According to the Mayo clinic, Crypto
and other parasites and germs enter the body through swallowed pool water, then burrows into the small intestine, often bringing on bouts of diarrhea. In rare cases, death can result if the person has a compromised immune system.
How much can make you sick?
Swallowing even a little tainted water tainted can make you sick. Children, seniors, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems are most at risk.
What about airborne vapors?
Illnesses can also be caused by breathing in mists or aerosols from pools, hot tubs, water parks, fountains, lakes, rivers, or oceans.
Doesn’t chlorine kill germs?
In fact, chlorine does not kill all germs instantly. Some can live in chlorinated water for days before the chemical kills them, while others — like Crypto
— are resistant to it.
Are GI problems the biggest risk?
While gastro-intestinal problems are most common, water-borne germs can also cause serious skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurological, and wound infections.
How can I protect myself?
Health experts advise taking the following precautions around recreational-water venues of any kind:
- Don’t drink the water. Swallowing any water from recreational facilities can be hazardous. Just one swimmer with diarrhea can easily contaminate the water shared by dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of others.
- Avoid poolside food or drinks that might have come in contact with contaminated water. Never bring anything you might eat or drink into a public pool.
- Wash your hands frequently and use hand sanitizers to avoid picking up Crypto from lounge chairs, picnic tables, bathroom fixtures, changing tables, and other fixtures that might have been tainted by an infected person.
- If you’re taking a cruise, where outbreaks of norovirus and other germs have become increasingly common in recent years, step up your personal hygiene and hand-washing efforts, particularly while swimming, using a hot tub, and partaking of the buffet.
- Be considerate of others. If you are sick, stay out of the water. Shower before using any public pool or Jacuzzi. And use the bathroom before going for a dip.
- Parents: Take kids for regular bathroom breaks to avoid “accidents” in the pool, check babies’ diapers, and change them in a bathroom – not poolside – to keep germs at bay.
- Ask pool attendants how often they test for chlorine levels and pH. Consider buying pool test strips — available at most hardware stores and pool-supply retailers — and taking them with you on pool outings.
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