Summer fun is here! Temperatures are rising and the kids are out of school, which means families will be heading to the water for cool and refreshing fun. Before you pack the towels and sunscreen, and head off to your favorite destinations, there are a few things you should consider. Talking to your pediatrician about waterborne dangers and how to keep your children safe is the best way to ensure a happy, healthy summer.
What Exactly are Waterborne Dangers?
Waterborne dangers include any potential health risks associated with water, whether referring to drinking water, recreational spaces, or natural bodies of water. Recreational water illnesses (RWI) that are caused by germs can result in diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, skin rashes, respiratory infections, ear infections, and neurological infections. The chemicals you may be exposed to in drinking and recreational water include chlorine, other disinfecting solutions, and lead. However, by being informed, you will be able to take steps to protect yourself and your family; and you will know what to look for and when to seek help if you suspect a waterborne illness. The following are some of the more common illnesses associated with recreational water sources.
The parasites Giardia and Cryptosporidium are two of the most common causes of waterborne intestinal illnesses in North America. Both find their way into water sources through animal and human waste, and are not always eliminated by chlorine. It is important to remember that the chlorine in pools and hot tubs is not 100% effective, and natural sources of water have no chemical disinfectants. During the summer, warmer waters create a very favorable environment for germs, and hot tubs are especially susceptible to contamination. Water can be contaminated by sewage overflows, polluted storm runoff, agricultural runoff or livestock, and if even a small amount of this water is ingested, the resulting infection can cause diarrhea, abdominal cramps, gas, achiness, weight loss, vomiting, chills, headache, and fever. And the symptoms can last up to a month. Other germs that can cause similar symptoms include Salmonella and E. coli, but regardless of the source, the most vulnerable people to infection and complications are the young and the old.
If skin is exposed to contaminated water for a long time, a rash can result. Pseudomonas aeruginosa is the most common cause of “hot tub rash,” and the symptoms include a bumpy itchy red rash, especially where the swimsuit covered the skin, and pus-filled blisters. The rash usually appears within a few days of swimming, especially in a hot tub, and usually resolves on its own. Likewise, “swimmer’s itch” can also cause a red bumpy rash and blisters as well as itching and burning, but is caused by an allergic reaction to parasites found in contaminated fresh and salt water, such as ponds or oceans. Both types of rashes usually resolve in two or three days, but if they persist, you should call your doctor.
Every year eight to eighteen thousand people in the U.S. are hospitalized with Legionnaires’ disease, caused by the bacteria Legionella, which can be found in warm water. The most common sources are hot tubs and decorative pools or fountains. If the mist or steam from one of these sources is inhaled, the result will be a respiratory infection, or pneumonia. Symptoms will start 2-10 days after exposure and can include cough, fever, chills, shortness of breath, headache, muscle ache, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, sleepiness, and chest pain. If your child has some of these symptoms and may have been recently exposed to contaminated water, it is important that they receive prompt medical treatment.
Swimmer’s ear, or otitis externa, can be the result of contaminated water staying in the ear after swimming. Swimmers of any age can be affected by this infection that occurs in the outer part of the ear canal. Symptoms develop within a few days of swimming and can include itchiness inside of the ear, redness and swelling, pain when tugging on the ear or applying pressure, and draining pus. If you suspect swimmer’s ear, contact your healthcare provider for evaluation and treatment.
Neurological and Other Serious Illnesses
Because of the risk of dangerous infections, care should always be taken to avoid contaminated recreational water sources. Leptospirosis is caused by corkscrew shaped bacteria entering the body through the eyes, nose, or mouth, or through a break in the skin. The bacteria can be found in the temperate and warm waters of rivers and lakes, and campers as well as individuals kayaking, swimming, wading, or rafting in these waters are at risk. The symptoms include high fever, headache, chills, muscle aches, vomiting, yellow skin, red eyes, abdominal pain, diarrhea and a rash, and can occur 2 days to 4 weeks after exposure. This is a very serious illness that must be treated with antibiotics so contact your doctor immediately if you suspect exposure.
How Can You Protect Your Family?
Prevention is key to keeping your family safe this summer. It is best to avoid swimming in high-risk areas. If you are swimming in pools or hot tubs, it is important to make sure the water sources are being treated properly and that disinfectant levels are being checked at least twice daily. You can ask when the most recent health inspection was and what was the score, how often are the levels checked, how often are they being cleaned, and how often the hot tub water is being changed.
You can also take personal responsibility by keeping your children out of the water if they have diarrhea, rinse them off in the shower before getting in the water, and keep them out of the water if they have open wounds. It’s also good to take small children on bathroom breaks and check diapers frequently. Taking swimsuits off and showering with soap and water, as well as washing swimsuits can help avoid rashes; and drying ears thoroughly with a towel after swimming can help prevent swimmer’s ear. Finally, don’t forget to frequently apply sunscreen and never leave children unattended near water.
Because summer is also a favorite time for vacation, it is important to do your research in advance. Different regions, both nationally and globally, have their own inherent risks. Good resources to learn more about the places you are going are the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) and your local health department.
We care about the health and safety of your family at Patient Care Now Urgent Care. If you are concerned about recent exposure to waterborne illnesses or current symptoms, or if you just have more questions about risk and prevention, please come in or contact us. We’re open from 8 am – 8 pm during the week, and 8 am – 6 pm on weekends. Call our Fairless Hills Urgent Care Center at (267) 202-6433.