Recreational Water Illness

July 18, 2017

There are illnesses that you can get from contaminated water sources such as lakes, oceans, ponds, rivers, spas, hot tubs, water parks or pools. Germs in these sources can enter your body through swallowing, breathing, or skin contact with contaminated water. They can cause a wide variety of symptoms, including gastrointestinal, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic and wound infections. The most commonly reported recreational water illness is diarrhea. Diarrheal illnesses can be caused by germs such as Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Shigella, norovirus and E. coli O157:H7.

 If swimmers are ill with diarrhea and swim in a body of water, the germs that they carry can contaminate the water if they have an "accident" in the pool. In addition, lakes, rivers, and the ocean can be contaminated by sewage spills, animal waste, and water runoff following rainfall. Some common germs can also live for long periods of time in salt water. If someone swallows water that has been contaminated with feces, he/she may become sick. Many of these diarrhea-causing germs do not have to be swallowed in large amounts to cause illness. Other recreational water illnesses (skin, ear, eye, respiratory, neurological, wound, and other infections) are caused by germs that live naturally in the environment (water, soil). In the pool or hot tub, if disinfectant is not maintained at the appropriate levels, these germs can increase to the point where they can cause illness when swimmers breathe or have contact with water containing these germs.

Chlorine in swimming pools does kill the germs that may make people sick, but it takes time. Chlorine in properly disinfected pools kills most germs that can cause recreational water illnesses in less than an hour. Chlorine takes longer to kill some germs such as Cryptosporidium,  which can survive for days in even a properly disinfected pool. This means that without your help, illness can spread even in well-maintained pools.

Healthy swimming behaviors are needed to protect you and your family from recreational water illness and will help stop germs from getting in the pool. Here are six "PLEAs" that promote healthy swimming and will help to prevent RWI:

For all swimmers,

Please don't swim when you have diarrhea. You can spread germs in the water and make other people sick. This is especially important for kids in diapers.

Please don't swallow the pool water. In fact, avoid getting water in your mouth.

Please practice good hygiene. Take a shower before swimming and wash your hands after using the toilet or changing diapers. Germs on your body end up in the water.


For parents of young swimmers,

Please take your kids on bathroom breaks or check diapers often. Waiting to hear "I have to go" may mean that it's too late.

Please change diapers in a bathroom or a diaper-changing area and not at poolside. Germs can spread to surfaces and objects in and around the pool and cause illness.

Please wash your child thoroughly (especially the rear end) with soap and water before swimming. Everyone has invisible amounts of fecal matter on their bottoms that ends up in the pool. (Source: Healthy Swimming brochure)

 For more information on this topic, visit, and search for “healthy swimming.” For Quinnipiack Valley Health District residents (Bethany, Hamden, North Haven and Woodbridge) without internet access, call 203 248-4528.