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Swimmers, Do you Know What Lurks Below?

There's nothing like a heat wave to compel human beings to plunge into a body of water. But while refreshing and relaxing, doing so can be hazardous to your health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , oceans, bays, rivers, lakes and pools can cause "recreational water illnesses," infections or irritations caused by germs or chemicals that contaminate the water. While some of these illnesses are minor – rashes or itches – others can be serious.

Recreational water illness is usually related to how much pollution is getting into the water, and Dr. Michael F. Parry, an infectious diseases specialist at Stamford Hospital, reels off some of the more common afflictions swimmers might encounter as a result of it. "People can contract intestinal infections due to fecal contamination of the water – through swallowing water – such as E coli, enterovirus and cryptosporidium ." Cryptosporidium, a bacterium that causes gastrointestinal distress, is resistant to chlorine and can be a culprit in swimming pools small and large (think waterparks). And, Pseudomonas , a bacterium commonly found in hot tubs, says Dr. Parry, can cause skin rashes and ear and urinary tract infections as well.

But perhaps the most common problem a swimmer, water-skier or wader can encounter from any body of water is diarrhea, an affliction that occurs from swallowing water contaminated with germ-laden feces. Giardia , a microscopic parasite that causes the diarrheal illness known as giardiasis, is found in water that has been contaminated with feces from infected humans or animals. CDC states that if even one swimmer has diarrhea, the germs – millions of them – from that person's stool can "contaminate the water in a large pool or water park."

Infections take different forms in natural bodies of water. The rash commonly known as swimmer's itch ( cercarial dermatitis ) is an allergic reaction to certain microscopic parasites in both birds and mammals that are released into fresh and saltwater by snails, the parasites' hosts.

You can protect yourself from waterborne infection by taking commonsense precautions both before entering and after leaving any body of water:

~ Showering with a full body scrub before swimming, as well as rinsing off afterwards, can successfully block the spread of germs.

~ Make sure the body of water you're about to enter is safe and clean. Pool water should be tested regularly for proper chemical balances and possible contamination.

~ Consider wearing goggles if you intend to spend a length of time under water (i.e., swimming laps). They can protect your eyes from chemicals and increase your visibility in order to avoid under water obstacles.

~ Avoid swimming after heavy rain, or if there is a lot of debris in the water, as there could be higher levels of pollutants and microorganisms within.

~ Don't swim near drainage pipes on the beach.

As to the issue of protecting yourself from another lurking underwater irritation, jellyfish stings, Dr. Parry offers some simple advice when the gelatinous Cnidaria is present: "Stay out of the water!"

How clean is your body of water? Do you know? Email me, at

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