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Swimming Pool Information :: Swimming and Illness FAQs

Can I get sick from swimming in a pool?

Yes. Millions of people swim each year without getting sick but it is possible to become ill. Swimming is the equivalent of communal bathing. When you are in the water you are bathing with everyone else in the pool. Germs in contaminated water can get into your body if you accidentally swallow the water. They also can cause infection in your eyes, ears and nose, as well as in cuts and scrapes. Germs that get inside your body can make you ill. A pool usually becomes contaminated with germs after someone has a fecal "accident" in the pool. These accidents may be in the form of watery diarrhea. Therefore, they are not as easily noticed as a formed stool.

What are my chances of getting ill?

The exact risk is not known. If a public pool is properly maintained and chlorinated, the risk is thought to be low. However, over the past 10 years, over 150 outbreaks have been reported, involving swimming pools, large waterparks, hot tubs, spas, lakes, and rivers. We know that many outbreaks go unnoticed because people often do not consider the pool water as a possible source of illness. It may take up to several weeks for some germs to cause symptoms of illness. The longer the time period between swimming and development of illness, the less likely people are to associate their illness with swimming activity. As a result, the number of actual outbreaks is probably greater than those currently reported.

What type of diseases can I catch?

A variety of diarrheal diseases and other infections such as skin, ear, nose, throat, and respiratory infections have been linked to swimming. However, diarrhea is one of the most common illnesses associated with swimming. Diarrhea is spread when disease-causing germs from human or animal feces get into the water. You can get diarrhea by accidentally swallowing small amounts of water that contains these germs.

Is there anyone who should be more concerned with diseases spread in swimming pools?

Any swimmer who swims in or accidentally swallows fecally contaminated water can become ill. Most of the illness reported is diarrhea. Children, women who are pregnant, and people with weakened immune systems (such as HIV-infected persons, those who have received an organ transplant or those receiving certain types of chemotherapy) may be more susceptible to severe disease.

What if I have diarrhea?

Please stay out of the water if you have diarrhea. Otherwise, you may contaminate the water by spreading tiny amounts of fecal matter that rinses from your bottom as you move through the water. Although swimmers with diarrhea do not intend to contaminate the water, this is how disease is often spread.

Doesn't chlorine kill all the germs?

No. Chlorine does not kill all the germs in the water, but it does a good job of killing most of the germs. However, a few germs can survive normal pool, hot tub, and spa levels of chlorine for several hours to days. Chlorine must be maintained at proper levels to kill most of the germs. 

Can I get sick from using a spa pool?

Yes. Although you can get the same diseases from a spas as you can from a swimming pool, skin infections are the most common type of infections spread through hot tubs and spas. The high water temperature of hot tubs and spas may cause chlorine levels to dissipate faster. As a result, chlorine in hot tubs and spas needs to be checked more regularly than in swimming pools.

Can my children get diarrhea from playing and wading in an interactive water fountain?

Yes. Interactive water fountains are fountains with water sprays in areas accessible to the public where interaction with the water is encouraged. They are intended to provide individuals with a means to play in the water and get wet without actually swimming. Several diarrheal disease outbreaks have been associated with interactive water fountains. Again, anyone who accidentally swallows fecally contaminated water can become ill. When people, especially diaper-aged children, play in or soak themselves with the water jets, they can contaminate the water. This may spread germs that can make people sick.

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Director of Environmental Health
Terri S. Williams
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