While swimming is a fun way stay healthy and active during the summer, it can come with health risks you may not know about. Richard Samuel, MD, medical director for Adventist HealthCare Urgent Care, answers questions about how to keep you and your family safe while swimming.

Q - What health risks do I face while swimming?

Dr. Samuel – Health risks from swimming can occur at all ages and skill levels. The most obvious risk is drowning, which is the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S. in children under 9. To prevent drowning and other swimming risks, it’s important for you and your family to be aware of your body, your abilities, the water and your surroundings.

During the summer, recreational water illnesses (RWIs) are common. This is a group of illnesses caused by germs and chemicals found in water from pools, hot tubs, water parks, rivers, lakes and oceans. They are spread when people swallow, breathe or have skin contact with contaminated water. RWI’s often cause gastrointestinal illnesses, like diarrhea, and skin, ear or eye infections. A common ear infection during the summer is swimmer’s ear, an infection of the outer ear from water remaining in the ear canal after swimming. Sunburn is also a common health risk swimmers face.

Q - How can I tell if a body of water can make me sick?

Dr. Samuel – Do not underestimate the potential of getting a recreational water illness in any body of water. In pools, water parks, splash pads and other chemical treated water, remember that chlorine does not kill every germ. Check to be sure the pool or water play area is well-maintained and trained staff and safety equipment are present.

Q - How can I protect myself and others from harmful germs when swimming?

Dr. Samuel – Think of swimming as a shared experience with other people in the water. In other words, do not go in the water if you are feeling ill. Open wounds are also more likely to get infected when in the water, so remember to cover them or avoid swimming altogether. Even though you may be in the water, remember to apply a water-resistant sunscreen at least every two hours that is SPF 30 or higher to prevent sunburn and skin damage. Also, discourage your children from engaging in rough play in or around the water to avoid breaks and sprains. Finally, take frequent breaks to hydrate, check diapers, use the restroom and reapply sunscreen.

Q - What should I do if I start to feel sick after swimming?

Dr. Samuel – I see patients develop infections from getting unclean water or particles in their eyes after swimming. To avoid this, keep bottled water around to flush your eyes to help remove contaminants and particles. Sometimes people feel other unusual symptoms after swimming, such as muscle cramps or dizziness. This is often caused by dehydration, which can be harder to identify after swimming because many people cannot feel themselves sweating while in the water. To prevent dehydration, remember to drink plenty of fluids before, during and after swimming. Serious symptoms, such as vomiting, could be a sign of an RWI and may require treatment from a physician.

Q - How can my family and I prepare before getting in the water?

Dr. Samuel – Here are simple tips you and your family can take before swimming:

  • Learn basic swimming techniques
  • Check for an attentive lifeguard and emergency floatation devices
  • Do not let children swim alone
  • Avoid getting in the water if you feel ill
  • Use the restroom and shower for at least one minute before getting in the water to remove any loose dirt
  • Stay hydrated
  • Avoid swimming with open or uncovered wounds
  • Keep children under five out of the hot tub
  • Move indoors if you see dark clouds and hear thunder


Sources: American Red Cross, American Heart Association, Centers for Disease Control, Skin Cancer Foundation


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