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The Down Side to Swimming: Recreational Water Illness

I love to swim, be it in lakes, pools, rivers or oceans. Unfortunately I just read an article on recreational water illness that made my skin crawl. Yes, there are things for fear that live in water that are decidedly smaller than great white sharks.


We all know that infection-producing germs lurk in our swimming water and can cause swimmers ear and swimmers itch, the problem is that infections are on the rise and according to the CDC the rate has more than doubled in the last 10 years. Just to add to my paranoia, Alan Greene, MD, says “No one who swims is safe from RWIs…You can catch respiratory illnesses and colds but by far, skin rashes, swimmer's ear, and gastrointestinal bugs are the most common.” Great. That last one sounds particularly gruesome to me.

Swimmers ear, is by far the most common problem with about 6.2 million cases occurring each year. Excessive water in the ear canal breaks down protective barriers in the ear and allows that lurking bacteria to get into and infect the ear. Symptoms include one to two days of progressive ear pain that is worsened by chewing or pulling the ear. Itching, pus and discharge often follow - eewww!

If you want to learn more about RWI, you should read more

The other common RWI is swimmers itch, known as cercarial dermatitis in medical jargon. Symptoms include tingling, burning or itching of the skin, small reddish pimples and or blisters that can appear from minutes to days after swimming in contaminated water. Both saltwater and freshwater are homes to the parasite larvae that causes these rashes, but they are most often found in unhygienic hot tubs or spas.

The best tips for avoiding these problems are:

  • Make sure pools are properly disinfected.
  • To prevent gastrointestinal distress - DO NOT SWALLOW any water.
  • For swimmers ear, dry ears thoroughly by tilting your head to the side and tugging the ear lobe to let the water out after swimming.
  • For skin rashes, showering before and after taking a dip in lakes, ponds, and oceans can help prevent them.

Hopefully this post isn't too much of a buzz kill, just take care of yourself out there and remember never swim alone - for safety reasons, but if you get sick at least you will have someone to compare symptoms with.

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