boy underwater in a swimming pool


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Swimming can be a risky business, especially for kids. We all know that parents of young children should keep an eye out when their little ones get into the water wherever they are — after all, children account for 1 in every 4 drowning deaths. But drowning isn't the only health risk to worry about when swimming, no matter what your age — especially if you swim in a public pool

Related: Beach vs. Pool: Which Is Safer Right Now?

While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there was an average 3,536 fatal drownings a year between 2005 and 2014, it is far more likely that swimming in a public pool will expose you to another problem. (It was never the coronavirus, by the way. The health organization found "no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be spread to people through the water in pools, hot tubs, spas, or water play areas.") After testing water samples in public pool filters, the CDC concluded that a majority of indoor and outdoor public pools are contaminated with fecal matter,  indicating swimmers were having "fecal incidents" in the pool or not showering before getting in.

While chlorine can kill some of the yucky stuff, it doesn't kill everything. Fifty-nine percent of the samples tested positive for an organism that can cause skin rashes or ear infections; tests also indicated that a small percentage carried bacteria that can cause diarrhea. 

Think that's all you can pick up from the pool? No such luck. The Giardia parasite is also carried through feces and can survive up to 45 minutes in even heavily chlorinated water. That's a long time to be dog-paddling with a parasite — and if you swallow water containing the critters, it can cause diarrhea, cramps, gas, nausea, and dehydration. An infection, especially if it's misdiagnosed or goes untreated, can be a serious problem for kids and the immunocompromised, as the ability to absorb vitamins and nutrients is impaired. 

Cryptosporidium is another tough-to-kill bug and the most common cause of pool-related diarrhea. Norovirus is also easily spread by water and usually causes vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, and fever. Shigella bacteria cause fever, stomach cramps, and, yup, diarrhea.

Ready to bypass the pool this summer? Despite all this scary news, the health benefits of swimming outweigh the risks, and by taking some precautions you're less likely to get sick — which is why you should find out if that public pool is maintained regularly, and shower before and after swimming. And if you shudder in horror thinking about the fecal levels in your local pool? An inflatable pool is a great way to cool off in your own backyard; if you have the space and money, you could consider your own above-ground pool.

Related: 24 Health Problems That Are More Common During the Summer

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