How to Avoid Getting Sick from Swimming

By Dr. Kristin Dean

Jul 24, 2018 · 3 min read

As temperatures rise, more and more people head to the lakes, rivers and pools to cool off in the summer. What they may not be aware of is the risk of waterborne viruses, parasites and bacteria lurking in the water.

According to a recently released report by the CDC, there is an increased risk of disease outbreaks associated with swimming in natural bodies of water such as lakes and rivers, during the summer months. Another CDC report showed 1 in 3 swimming related illnesses were related to hotel pools or hot tubs. By taking a few precautions, you can continue to enjoy the benefits of pools, lakes, waterparks and rivers and lower the chance of you getting sick.

What are some illnesses you can catch from swimming?

Pools and lakes are full of germs that can make you sick. Some of the common issues you can get from swimming in a lake or pool are diarrhea, skin rashes, respiratory illness and swimmers ear. People typically contract one of these illnesses when they accidentally ingest contaminated water. Lakes and rivers are untreated natural bodies of water, and can be contaminated with wastewater, sewage runoff, flooding or someone having an accident while swimming. This fosters bacteria, pathogens, and parasites.

Tips to avoid getting sick:

  1. Don’t swallow water — Swallowing even a little bit of water can make you sick. In pools, it’s also important to remember that chlorine doesn’t kill germs right away and there are some germs that can survive these chemicals.
  2. Shower and wash your hands — It’s important to rinse off before and after going swimming. Hand-washing is also important to keep in mind to make sure you don’t swallow any germs from your hand.
  3. Take bathroom breaks — Be sure to take your children for bathroom breaks and change diapers frequently when enjoying a day of swimming. You or your children should not go into the water if you have had diarrhea.
  4. Avoid swimming after heavy rains — Water after heavy rains or floods has a higher probability of being contaminated.
  5. Pay attention to the weather — Warmer days can cause bacteria to be higher in the water, so avoid swimming on these days.
  6. Keep ears dry — Try to keep your ears dry while swimming and dry ears thoroughly after swimming.
  7. Don’t swim with open wounds — Open wounds can increase the risk of contracting an illness.

What signs and symptoms should you look for?

  1. Flu-like symptoms
  2. Cough
  3. Fevers
  4. Shortness of breath
  5. Watery diarrhea
  6. Stomach cramps
  7. Nausea and vomiting
  8. Ear pain

Keep in mind, there are some people that may develop more severe illness if exposed to germs while swimming in a pool; including those 50 years or older, current or former smokers, people with chronic lung disease, and people who have a weakened immune system. If you think you might have developed an illness after swimming, please contact a doctor.

What No One Tells You About The Pool And How It Can Make You Sick

Swimming in a pool is a great way to exercise and have fun, but you could also contract some nasty illnesses. Although most pools are maintained by chemicals and hopefully scrubbed regularly, you can get sick from what swimmers bring to the pool party.

Viruses, bacteria, bodily fluids, and even sweat can introduce problems to swimmers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Here are all the ways you can get sick from swimming in a pool. (No one talks about the extremely terrifying way a pool can make you sick on page 11.

1. Swimmer’s ear

Bacteria thrives in pools. | l2egulas/iStock/Getty Images

  • Symptoms: itchiness, swelling, pain, redness

Water, combined with bacteria in the pool can irritate the ear canal, according to Reader’s Digest. Commonly called “swimmers ear,” water trapped in the outer ear canal can create a pretty uncomfortable situation. Obtaining a prescription from your doctor for eardrops can halt bacteria growth.

Next: When the hot tub isn’t such a hot idea.

2. Pus-filled rashes

Relaxing in a hot tub isn’t so peaceful when you develop this rash. | irina88w/Getty Images

  • Symptoms: pus-filled blisters near hair follicles, itchiness, embarassment

Sliding into a hot tub after a long day at work sounds dreamy until you develop a pus-filled rash, Readers Digest reports. Caused by the bacteria Pseudomonas Dermatitis / Folliculitis, aka “hot tub rash,” isn’t serious, but it’s extremely annoying. You’ll typically find the pus-filled blisters around your hair follicles. Also, the rash tends to be more pronounced in areas your swimsuit covered.

Next: Hold the vomit.

3. E-coli infection

Contaminated food is the stereotypical way people think about e-coli. | JackF/Getty Images

  • Symptoms: stomach cramps, diarrhea (possibly bloody), vomiting

E-coli exposure usually occurs from consuming tainted foods. However, pools can harbor e-coli, too. In fact, almost 60% of public pools were contaminated, according to the CDC. Some e-coli infections are mild, but they can require medical attention or hospitalization. Most people improve within five to seven days after being infected.

Next: Are you vaccinated against this disease?

4. Hepatitis A

Don’t open your mouth underwater for any reason. |

  • Symptoms: nausea, fatigue, vomiting

It sounds nuts, but you can contract hepatitis A virus from a pool, Reader’s Digest reports. You catch it the same way you get most illnesses in a pool — through accidentally swallowing water. While it is rare to contract hep A in a pool, it is important to know the signs. In addition to the symptoms above, you may feel pain or discomfort on the right side of your abdomen.

Next: Cruises are notorious for this virus.

5. Norovirus

Before you know it, half of passengers are puking. | Baldwin040/Wikimedia Commons

  • Symptoms: stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea

It may not be safe to go in the water on that cruise you booked. While this bacteria can be found in any public pool, on land or at sea, you don’t want to mess around if you contract it. A highly contagious virus, according to the CDC, norovirus spreads when the infected person touches any surface, or thorough contaminated water or food.

Next: You may not have heard of this strain lurking in your pool.

6. Shigella

Shigella will give you the … runs. | seksan mongkhonkhamsao/getty Images

  • Symptoms: diarrhea, vomiting, fever, stomach cramping

Diarrhea and vomiting seem to be a running theme with illnesses you get from a pool. Being infected with the Shigella bacteria can do a number on your tummy, according to the CDC. Symptoms typically arrive about two days after infection and can last up to seven days. Fecal matter in the pool is one way Shigella can be transmitted.

Next: There’s a reason they close down the pool when this happens.

7. Bacteria from feces

No, that’s not a Baby Ruth candy bar at the bottom. | Halfpoint/Getty Images

Symptoms: watery diarrhea, vomiting, fever, nausea

Bottom line: Don’t poop in the pool. Formally called cryptosporidium, people can get sick from bacteria being present in water, according to the CDC. Symptoms may persist for up to two weeks in healthy individuals. However sometimes you can deal with the illness for up to 30 days with symptoms coming and going over days at a time.

Next: Just stay home if you’re vulnerable to this disease.

8. Legionnaires’ disease

You wouldn’t think you could get pneumonia from a pool. | JadeThaiCatwalk/Getty Images

  • Symptoms: coughing, shortness of breath, headaches, muscle aches

Contracting Legionnaires’ disease is possible from a pool, according to the CDC. You get sick by breathing or swallowing contaminated water or droplets, which can cause this severe form of pneumonia. While most people who are exposed don’t get sick, people who smoke, are over age 50, or have a weakened immune system should be on alert.

Next: No one talks about this terrifying way a pool can make you sick.

9. Flesh-eating disease

Horrifying but it could happen to you. | JaySi/Getty Images

  • Symptoms: fever, chills, fatigue, vomiting

While rare, you can contract a flesh-eating disease or necrotizing fasciitis from a pool or hot tub, according to the CDC. Those at risk have a cut or skin irritation that comes into contact with an infected body of water. Symptoms can be confusing and mimic other diseases. Regardless, this flesh-eating disease can be fatal if left untreated.

Next: Everyone is familiar with this summertime smell.

10. Chloramine irritation

Not just a lingering smell on your skin | Tirachard/Getty Images

  • Symptoms: skin and eye irritation, skin problems, respiratory issues

Have you ever visited a public pool and thought it smelled over-chlorinated? It isn’t because the pool guy dumped too many chemicals in the pool. The smell results from free chlorine getting totally consumed with germs, such as urine, to the point where it no longer works. This forms a gas called chloramines, according to the CDC, which emits the smell and creates irritating symptoms.

Next: While not pool-related, you can get this serious illness from swimming.

11. The most serious illness you could get from swimming

Family in the pool | JaySi/Getty Images

  • Symptoms: high fever, headache, chills, vomiting, jaundice, red eyes, rash

While you can’t get this illness from a pool, you can contract leptospirosis from other bodies of water, according to the CDC. Swimming in contaminated lakes and rivers can cause this infection, which is possible for both humans and pets. Treatment requires antibiotics, sometimes given though an IV. And if you don’t address it, you could get meningitis or kidney and liver failure.

Next: This hazard is something all swimmers should keep in mind.

12. Life-threatening circumstances

Avoid a freak accident. | Violetastock/Getty Images

While the kids may be anxious to jump into the hotel pool, check the drainage system first. Curious swimmers may dive down to grab a toy from the bottom of the pool and get caught in the drainage system, CBS News reports. Older pools have a single drain, which means stronger suction, making it easier to catch small fingers, toes, and hair.

While newer pool systems are equipped with multiple drains, which make them less powerful, inquire about the system before you swim. Some pools have a drain cover. Or you can locate the pool pump to turn off the system in case of an emergency.

Next: How can you avoid getting sick and still swim?

13. Check the water before you jump in

You should clean your pool regularly. | iStock/Getty Imagse

Avoid any cloudy, discolored, or slimy water, according to Forbes. Steer clear if you can’t see to the bottom of the pool. Of course, if anything is floating in the water, you need to avoid it, too. You also want to check for water circulation. If you don’t see it properly circulating, sit out this swim.

Next: Kids commonly don’t know about this issue.

14. Bring your own drinking water

Don’t gulp the pool water if you can help it. | oneinchpunch/Getty Images

Sometimes it is tough to avoid getting water in your mouth. However, most of these pool-borne illnesses come from swallowing pool water. Talk to your kids about minimizing the amount of water they swallow. Also, pack fresh water whenever you visit a public pool. Even if you are cooling off in the pool, you can still get thirsty.

Next: These wives’ tales are totally false.

15. Common myths about pool diseases

No, you won’t get pregnant from swimming in a pool. | DisobeyArt/Getty Images

While it sounds like you catch basically everything in a pool, some communicable diseases just won’t spread while swimming in a public pool, according to the CDC. Head lice is unlikely to hop heads while in a pool. Even though pool chemicals won’t necessarily kill lice, it isn’t a favorable breeding ground for transmission. Also, MRSA does not survive for a long in water and pinworms are unlikely to be transmitted in a pool.

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WE’VE all done it, gulped down a mouthful of water while swimming.

But chances are you won’t have worried, chlorine keeps the water clean, right?

2 Swallowing just one mouthful of ‘clean’ swimming pool water can cause you to be infected with a nasty parasite called Cryptosporidium, experts warnCredit: Getty Images

Not quite always the case, experts have now warned.

They say swallowing just one mouthful of apparently clean pool water, could leave a swimmer sick, and suffering diarrhoea for up to three weeks.

And it’s not just because people really do pee in pools.

The parasite Cryptosporidium, also known as “Crypto” spreads when people swallow something that has come into contact with the faeces (yes poo) of a sick person.

And swimming pool water is a prime candidate.

While chlorine and other pool disinfectants kill bugs in a matter of minutes, Crypto is extremely hard to kill using standard levels of chemicals, scientists warn.

It is the most common cause of diarrhoea linked to pools and water parks, because it can’t easily be killed by chlorine.

People infected with the parasite can be sick for weeks at a time, suffering diarrhoea, stomach cramps, nausea or vomiting and dehydration.

And experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn it can survive and thrive for 10 days in properly treated, clean water.


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The CDC has warned of outbreaks at public pools and water parks, with twice as many outbreaks reported last year compared to 2014.

At least 32 Crypto outbreaks happened in swimming pools or water playgrounds across the US in 2016, compared to 16 two years previously.

Michele Hlavsa, chief of the CDC’s Healthy Swimming Program said: “To help protect your family and friends from Crypto and other diarrhoea-causing germs, do not swim or let your kids swim if they’re sick with diarrhoea.

2 The bug, which can survive standard levels of chlorine, can cause diarrhoea, vomiting, stomach cramps and dehydration for up to three weeks, health experts warnCredit: Getty Images

“Protect yourself from getting sick by not swallowing the water in which you swim.”

Other measures you can take to protect yourself include:

  • Rinse off in the shower before getting in the water to help remove any germs on your body that could contaminate the water
  • Take kids on toilet breaks often, and check nappies in the toilet, not next to the pool

Last year, large Crypto outbreaks were reported in Alabama, Arizona, Ohio among other states.

Arizona identified 352 people sick with Crypto between July and October, compared with no more than 62 cases for any one year from 2011 to 2015.

Ohio reported 1,940 people infected last year compared with no more than 571 cases for any year between 2012 and 2015.

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SATURDAY, July 26, 2014 (HealthDay News) — Pools can provide much-needed relief from the summer heat, but kids can make themselves sick if they swallow too much chlorinated water, experts warn.

Amid the splashing and excitement, it’s common for little ones to get water in their mouth. Some kids may even take a drink from a pool, despite warnings from their parents.

Although swallowing a small amount of pool water is harmless, it’s important for parents to realize that ingesting too much can lead to chlorine poisoning or so-called recreational water illness, according to Dr. Sampson Davis, an emergency room physician at Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center in New Jersey. Kids can also inhale water into their lungs, Davis added, which can lead to a serious condition called secondary drowning.

Recreational water illnesses can also be serious. Pool water contains chlorine — a chemical used to help get rid of bacteria such as E. coli and parasites. Chlorine may not eliminate all of these germs, so if children swallow pool water they could become sick, Davis said.

If parents and caregivers are aware of these risks, they can take steps to prevent them from happening. By being aware, parents can also recognize warning signs and seek immediate medical attention, Davis added.

To help parents protect their children, Davis advised parents to watch out for the following symptoms that could develop within a few hours or up to 72 hours after swimming:

The first signs of trouble usually include:

  • Upset stomach and vomiting
  • Persistent cough
  • Trouble breathing
  • Fatigue

As the hours pass, recreational water illness, chlorine poisoning and secondary drowning become more distinct conditions with more specific and severe symptoms, noted Davis.

Recreational water illness and chlorine poisoning may lead to digestive distress, such as abdominal cramping and diarrhea. These conditions may seem like a bad case of food poisoning or stomach flu.

Chlorine poisoning may also cause symptoms in the nervous and respiratory systems. Children may experience trouble with their vision. Swelling and burning may also develop in their eyes, throat, nose and ears.

Secondary drowning has a greater effect on the respiratory system. Children will experience trouble breathing and have heavy, wet-sounding, persistent coughs. They will also develop uncontrollable shivering as well as hot and cold flashes.

Children who have any of these symptoms should be taken to an emergency room immediately.

Davis offered the following tips for warding off trouble:

  • Once a child is finished swimming, check for redness and irritation around the eyes, nose, mouth and ears. This could be a sign that chlorine levels were too high.
  • Listen for a nagging cough. If a child who has been swimming develops a cough that does not go away, it could be a sign that the child swallowed too much water or inhaled it.
  • Be on alert for flu-like symptoms. If a child develops symptoms of the flu or food poisoning after swimming, seek immediate medical attention.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about swimming pool safety.

When you swim, some water is going to get into your mouth. For the most part, that is OK. In recreational pools chlorine is used to kill germs although it can take its sweet time killing some of them.

However, in 1999-2000, more than 2,000 recreational water illnesses (RWIs) and four deaths occurred because of water system failures in recreational pools. The most common RWI by far is diarrhea which affects thousands who accidentally swallow infected pool water.

This was 10 times the rate of the decade before, Michael Beach, epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, tells WebMD. Most swimming pool outbreaks go unrecognized and unreported. In the last decade, he estimates, pool outbreaks have affected 10,000 people.

On average people have about 0.14 grams of feces on their bottoms which, when rinsed off, can contaminate recreational water. People who have diarrhea have millions of germs. If a swimmer has diarrhea, he or she can contaminate water if he or she has an “accident” in the pool.

A particularly nasty customer that can be swimming alongside you is cryptosporidium, a parasite that laughs at chlorine and can cause diarrheal distress. The approximate disinfectant time in chlorinated water for this germ is nearly seven days. In the very young (say, that newborn you are “flying” through the water) or those with immune problems, crypto can cause severe debilitating illnesses. Some water parks have — charmingly — been described as “diarrhea farms.”

“Crypto,” says Beach, “can live in a chlorinated pool for days. Chlorine kills other organisms in a fraction of a second. This is a totally different beast.”

Other unwelcome swim partners include E.coli, Giardia, and Shigella. “We see 2 million cases a year of Giardia,” Beach says, speaking of other frequent fecal contaminants.

Americans, with their light-hearted “I don’t swim in your toilet” signs, are pretty realistic — if a little misguided — about “group bathing.” In May of 2004, Opinion Research Corporation (ORC) conducted a survey of nearly 1,000 people over the age of 18. Among the findings:

  • About 60% said that it is “not likely at all” or “possible but not likely” that a person could get sick from pool water.
  • Still, 88% agreed you should use soap and water after using the bathroom if you plan to jump back in the pool. Nearly 75% said they shower before going in.
  • Nearly 94% said a “poop” accident should be reported immediately.
  • 75% pointed the finger at diapered children (although Beach says adults who don’t “wipe” thoroughly add 3 to 4 pounds of “solid” matter to the average water park).
  • One-fifth said if you could smell the chlorine, the pool was safe (chlorine does kill germs, but some organisms die a slow death, lasting in a dangerous state for days). Also, a heavy odor means harmful chemicals have formed.
  • One-fifth said a little urine never hurt anyone (urine, in fact, does not contain germs, but you can decide how you feel about that statement).

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Whenever we all go swimming in a swimming pool, more often than not, we tend to accidentally swallow a mouthful of pool water when we open our mouths to take in air. So, the question that people are more interested in is: Is it harmful?

The short answer is YES.

Drinking swimming pool water, whether intentionally or accidentally is harmful to our body, and here are two main possible reasons why and how it could harm us.


Also known as recreational water illness, RWIs are illnesses spread by swallowing or having contact with contaminated water such as swimming pool water. You see, whenever we go to the pool, most of us will not bother to take a shower beforehand and just cannonball into the water.

But here’s the thing: Research has shown that because we don’t take a quick shower beforehand and just cannonball ourselves into the cool inviting water, each of us carries about 0.14 grams of faecal material into the pool, leading to the transmission of the bacteria E.Coli among the waters. Some of them might even get trapped among the filters.

Other than E.Coli, studies have also shown the presence of other bacteria such as Giardia, Shigella and the unkillable cryptosporidium, a parasite that seems to be almost immune to chlorine. All these can lead to RWI.

Symptoms of RWI include diarrhoea (sometimes bloody), vomiting, stomach cramps, loss of appetite, weight loss, and fever etc. And in the event you have RWI, contact your doctor and avoid swimming for 2-3 weeks after recovery.

As for those who are swimming, to prevent RWI, take preventive measures like showering before cannonballing; take a shower to rinse off before you get back into the water; take bathroom breaks every 60 minutes…etc.


Chlorine Poisoning

As its name suggests, this is basically poisoning due to chlorine. Basically, chlorine is a chemical that is used for sanitation and to prevent bacteria from growing. Chlorine is used in many household products and is recognised by its pungent smell.

Chlorine poisoning occurs when you swallow or inhale chlorine. It reacts with water inside and outside of the body to form hydrochloric acid and hypochlorous acid. To test this, the University of Cordoba in Spain decided to do an experiment. They tested the samples of 49 volunteer swimmers after they are done splashing around in the swimming pool, and results show that their urine contains haloacetic acids (HAAs) just within 20-30 minutes after they accidentally swallowed some pool water while splashing around back there.

HAA is a very dangerous chemical that can lead to deadly diseases such as cancer or future birth defects etc. And for those who keep on swallowing chlorine water, in short term, you should not display sickness but if you are a regular swimmer, you will have a chance to be exposed to mild chlorine poisoning. Symptoms include difficulty breathing, fluid in the lungs; digestive issues; high acid levels in blood and even low blood pressure.

But since it is mild chlorine poisoning, it could be treated easily. Simply just contact your doctor for medical support and avoid swimming till you have recovered. Also, drink lots of milk to reduce to acid caused by chlorine.

So, here’s the verdict: Drinking swimming water, regardless of whether it is intentionally or accidentally, is harmful!

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Drinking pool water side effects

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