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Recreational Water Illness: How Urgent Care Can Help

May 21, 2024
A family—a man and a woman and two young girls—are swimming in a pool. All are smiling, and water droplets are splashing around them.

As we head into the warmer months, we in the Northeast love to enjoy longer days in the outdoors. But as beach days and trips to the pool begin to fill our calendars again, it is important to keep safety in mind while having fun in the sun. One potential risk to be aware of is recreational water illnesses (RWI).

Recreational water illness is caused by ingesting small pathogens—bacteria or viruses—from contaminated water, including pools, lakes, oceans, rivers, and hot tubs.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2015 and 2019, 208 outbreaks of recreational water illness in treated water (including pools, hot tubs, and splash pads) were reported in the U.S.

The most common illnesses included in these outbreaks included gastrointestinal illness (diarrhea or vomiting), respiratory illness, and skin disease (such as rashes).

If you or a loved one is experiencing vomiting, nausea, or diarrhea due to possible RWI, we can help.

Treatment for Recreational Water Illness

Our providers at ClearChoiceMD are equipped to diagnose and treat recreational water illnesses. Our caring clinicians will discuss your symptoms with you, perform an assessment, order any diagnostic tests, and prescribe treatment.

The treatment you may need will depend on the cause of your illness and the symptoms you are experiencing. Eye or ear pain or infections, fever, rashes, and nausea may be treated with medications, and dehydration and electrolyte imbalances due to vomiting or diarrhea can be corrected with IV fluids.

If you or a family member are experiencing ongoing vomiting and diarrhea, you can take some important steps at home, even before you come to urgent care. Drinking fluids containing electrolytes, such as sports drinks or Pedialyte, may help treat dehydration. Dehydration can rapidly become serious for children and older adults.

Symptoms of RWI

Gastrointestinal illness--often characterized by vomiting, nausea, or diarrhea—is the most common type of RWI. Swimmers with diarrhea can spread their illness to others through recreational water like a pool. People normally carry a certain amount of fecal particles on their skin. If these particles contain pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria or viruses, other swimmers can ingest them accidentally and become infected.

Most pools, hot tubs, or splash parks are treated with chlorine or bromine to kill unwanted viruses or bacteria. If adequate levels of these chemicals are not maintained, these pathogens can multiply and make multiple swimmers sick. If you’ve become sick after swimming in a river or lake or developed diarrhea after being in a hot tub, you may have recreational water illness.

Common signs and symptoms of recreational water illness may include:

  • Ear pain
  • Eye pain
  • Cough or congestion
  • Stomach cramps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Rashes

Severe Symptoms

If you have been experiencing vomiting or diarrhea and develop the following symptoms, it is especially important to seek urgent care treatment:

  • Fever
  • Difficulty keeping down fluids
  • Lethargy
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Confusion
  • Persistent vomiting or diarrhea

How Can I Prevent RWI?

Keeping contaminated water out of your body is one key way to prevent recreational water illness. Try not to get water in your mouth when you swim, and do not swallow water. Drying your ears after swimming is helpful as well. Coaching children in these preventative measures is essential, as they may be more likely to ingest contaminated water.

Avoid swimming in stagnant natural water sources, as these may be more likely to harbor pathogens. Never drink water from a stream, lake, or river. Ingesting a diarrhea-causing pathogen like Giardia is a real possibility.

Keeping germs out of recreational water is perhaps the most effective way to prevent RWI. If you or your family have experienced diarrhea within the last two weeks, do not swim in a pool, hot tub, or any other recreational water. Even if water has been treated, viruses or bacteria may still spread.

Those with weakened immune systems may be more susceptible to contracting recreational water illness and becoming severely ill. Cryptosporidium is of particular concern, as recreational water contaminated with this bacteria can cause life-threatening illness for those with weakened immune systems. If you have a weakened or suppressed immune system, consult your health care provider before swimming in a pool, hot tub, lake, or other recreational water.

At ClearChoiceMD Urgent Care, keeping our communities healthy and happy is our priority. If you need recreational water illness treatment, stop by any of our ClearChoiceMD Urgent Care centers or schedule a virtual visit. Call us at (617) 804-6293 with any questions.

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