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Recreational water illness (RWIs) facts

  • Contrary to popular belief, chlorine does not kill all germs instantly. There are germs today that are very tolerant to chlorine and were not known to cause human disease until recently. Once these germs get in the pool, it can take anywhere from minutes to days for chlorine to kill them. Swallowing just a little water that contains these germs can make you sick.
  • Recreational water illnesses (RWIs) are caused by germs spread by swallowing, breathing in mists or aerosols of, or having contact with contaminated water in swimming pools, hot tubs, water parks, water play areas, interactive fountains, lakes, rivers, or oceans. RWIs can also be caused by chemicals in the water or chemicals that evaporate from the water and cause indoor air quality problems.
  • RWIs include a wide variety of infections, such as gastrointestinal, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic, and wound infections. The most commonly reported RWI is diarrhea. Diarrheal illnesses are caused by germs such as Crypto (short for Cryptosporidium), Giardia, Shigella, norovirus and E. coli O157:H7. With RWI outbreaks on the rise, swimmers need to take an active role in helping to protect themselves and prevent the spread of germs. It is important for swimmers to learn the basic facts about RWIs so they can keep themselves and their family healthy every time they swim.
  • In the past two decades, there has been a substantial increase in the number of RWI outbreaks associated with swimming. Crypto, which can stay alive for days even in well-maintained pools, has become the leading cause of swimming pool-related outbreaks of diarrheal illness. From 2004 to 2008, reported Crypto cases increased over 200% (from 3,411 cases in 2004 to 10,500 cases in 2008).
  • Although Crypto is tolerant to chlorine, most germs are not. Keeping chlorine at recommended levels is essential to maintain a healthy pool. However, a 2010 study found that 1 in 8 public pool inspections resulted in pools being closed immediately due to serious code violations such as improper chlorine levels.

Recreational Water Illness (RWI) Symptom

Diarrhea

  • Diarrhea is an increase in the frequency of bowel movements, an increase in the looseness of stool or both.
  • Diarrhea is caused by increased secretion of fluid into the intestine, reduced absorption of fluid from the intestine or rapid passage of stool through the intestine.
  • Symptoms associated with diarrhea include abdominal pain, especially cramping. Other symptoms depend on the cause of the diarrhea.

What are Recreational Water Illnesses (RWIs)?

Recreational water illnesses (RWIs) are caused by germs spread by swallowing, breathing in mists or aerosols of, or having contact with contaminated water in swimming pools, hot tubs, water parks, water play areas, interactive fountains, lakes, rivers, or oceans. RWIs can also be caused by chemicals in the water or chemicals that evaporate from the water and cause indoor air quality problems. RWIs can be a wide variety of infections, including gastrointestinal, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic and wound infections. The most commonly reported RWI is diarrhea. Diarrheal illnesses can be caused by germs such as Crypto (short for Cryptosporidium), Giardia, Shigella, norovirus and E. coli O157:H7.

Where are Recreational Water Illnesses (RWIs) Found?

RWIs are caused by germs spread through contaminated water in swimming pools, water parks, water play areas, hot tubs, decorative water fountains, oceans, lakes, and rivers.

Swimming Pools, Water Parks, Water Play Areas

The most common RWI is diarrhea. Swallowing water that has been contaminated with feces containing germs can cause diarrheal illness.

Swimmers share the water -- and the germs in it -- with every person who enters the pool. On average, people have about 0.14 grams of feces on their bottoms which, when rinsed off, can contaminate recreational water. In addition, when someone is ill with diarrhea, their stool can contain millions of germs. This means that just one person with diarrhea can easily contaminate the water in a large pool or water park. People may not realize that although there is no standing water in interactive fountains/water play areas, the spray water will rinse any contaminants (for example, diarrhea, vomit, and dirt) down into the water holding area and be sprayed again. In other words, the water is recycled through the system.

Swallowing even a small amount of recreational water that has been contaminated with feces containing germs can make you sick.

To ensure that most germs are killed, check chlorine or other disinfectant levels and pH regularly as part of good pool operation.

Hot Tubs

Skin infections like "hot tub rash" are a common RWI spread through hot tubs and spas. Respiratory illnesses are also associated with the use of improperly maintained hot tubs.

The high water temperatures in most hot tubs make it hard to maintain the disinfectant levels needed to kill germs. That's why it's important to check disinfectant levels in hot tubs even more regularly than in swimming pools.

The germs that cause "hot tub rash" can also be spread in pools that do not have proper disinfectant levels and in natural bodies of water such as oceans, lakes, or rivers.

Decorative Water Fountains

Not all decorative fountains are chlorinated or filtered. Therefore, when people, especially diaper-aged children, play in the water, they can contaminate the water with fecal matter. Swallowing this contaminated water can then cause diarrheal illness.

Oceans, Lakes, and Rivers

Oceans, lakes, and rivers can be contaminated with germs from sewage spills, animal waste, water runoff following rainfall, fecal incidents, and germs rinsed off the bottoms of swimmers. It is important to avoid swallowing the water because natural recreational water is not disinfected. Avoid swimming after rainfalls or in areas identified as unsafe by health departments. Contact your state or local health department for water testing results in your area or go to EPA's beach site.

How are Recreational Water Illnesses (RWIs) Spread?

Diarrheal Illnesses

Swallowing water that has been contaminated with feces containing germs can cause diarrheal illness.

Swimmers share the water -- and the germs in it -- with every person who enters the pool. On average, people have about 0.14 grams of feces on their bottoms which, when rinsed off, can contaminate recreational water. In addition, when someone is ill with diarrhea, their stool can contain millions of germs. This means that just one person with diarrhea can easily contaminate the water in a large pool or water park. Swallowing even a small amount of recreational water that has been contaminated with feces containing germs can make you sick. Remember, chlorine does not kill germs instantly, and some germs, such as Cryptosporidium (or "Crypto"), are extremely chlorine tolerant.

In addition, lakes, rivers, and the ocean can be contaminated with germs from sewage spills, animal waste, and water runoff following rainfall. Some common germs can also live for long periods of time in salt water.

Other RWIs

Many other RWIs (skin, ear, eye, respiratory, neurologic, wound, and other infections) are caused by germs that live naturally in the environment (for example, in water and soil). If disinfectant levels in pools or hot tubs are not maintained at the appropriate levels, these germs can multiply and cause illness when swimmers breathe in mists or aerosols of or have contact with the contaminated water.

Why Doesn't Chlorine Kill Recreational Water Illness (RWI) Germs?

Chlorine (in swimming pools and hot tubs) kills the germs that cause recreational water illnesses (RWIs), but the time it takes to kill each germ varies.

In pools and hot tubs with the correct pH and disinfectant levels, chlorine will kill most germs that cause RWIs in less than an hour. However, chlorine takes longer to kill some germs, such as Crypto (short for Cryptosporidium). Crypto can survive for days even in a properly disinfected pool. This is why it is so important for swimmers to keep germs out of the water in the first place.

To protect yourself, your family, and other swimmers from RWIs, it is essential to learn and practice healthy swimming behaviors.

Who is Most Likely to Get Ill from a Recreational Water Illness (RWI)?

Children, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems (for example, people living with AIDS, individuals who have received an organ transplant, or people receiving certain types of chemotherapy) can suffer from more severe illness if infected. People with weakened immune systems should be aware that recreational water might be contaminated with human or animal feces containing Crypto (short for Cryptosporidium). Crypto can cause a life-threatening infection in persons with weakened immune systems.

People with a weakened immune system should consult their health care provider before participating in activities that place them at risk for illness.

How Can We Prevent Recreational Water Illnesses (RWIs)?

Steps for Healthy Swimming

Here are a few easy and effective healthy swimming steps all swimmers can take each time we swim to help protect ourselves, our families, and our friends from recreational water illnesses (RWIs):

Keep the pee, poop, sweat, and dirt out of the water!

  • Stay out of the water if you have diarrhea.
  • Shower before you get in the water.
  • Don't pee or poop in the water.
  • Don't swallow the water.

Every hour -- everyone out!

  • Take kids on bathroom breaks.
  • Check diapers, and change them in a bathroom or diaper-changing area-not poolside-to keep germs away from the pool.
  • Reapply sunscreen.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.

Check the free chlorine level and pH before getting into the water.

  • Pools: Proper free chlorine level (1-3 mg/L or parts per million [ppm]) and pH (7.2-7.8) maximize germ-killing power.
  • Hot tubs/spas: Proper disinfectant level (chlorine [2-4 parts per million or ppm] or bromine [4-6 ppm] and pH [7.2-7.8]) maximize germ-killing power.
  • Most superstores, hardware stores, and pool-supply stores sell pool test strips.

SOURCE:

United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Recreational Water Illnesses (RWIs)." Feb. 5, 2015. <http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/rwi/index.html>.

Last Editorial Review: 2/5/2015

Reviewed on 2/5/2015
References
SOURCE:

United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Recreational Water Illnesses (RWIs)." Feb. 5, 2015. <http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/rwi/index.html>.

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