Swimming season has arrived, and patients often ask me about whether or not you can catch this or that disease from a swimming pool or hot tub. First of all, let me assure you that no, you cannot catch STI’s (sexually transmitted infections) directly from a hot tub…as long as all you are doing in the hot tub is enjoying the water. There are, however, diseases that can be contracted from swimming pools – typically from accidentally swallowing the pool water. How does that happen? Easily, especially for kids and adults who play around with getting mouthfuls of pool water and spraying that out like a whale (we’ve all seen them!)
The most common swimming pool contracted illness that we see is diarrhea, especially from the parasite giardia or the pathogenic strains of the bacteria, E. coli. Of course, there is also the potential to contract a few skin diseases such as athletes foot or plantar warts when you are hanging out in public swimming areas.
A recent study, Microbes in pool filter backwash as evidence of the need for improved swimmer hygiene-metro-atlanta, georgia, 2012, published by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) looked at the microbes collected in pool filter backwash. Over half the samples contained Pseudomonas and E. Coli. Pseudomonas can invade ear canals and any open skin lesions/cuts/scratches- including “razor burn” areas, and is a special concern for diabetics, who can tend to develop more severe infections. E. coli is the most common bacteria in a healthy human gut, but can also cause significant illness, as is evidenced by the food poisoning we see from time to time from this organism. Ultimately, this study reinforces the need for public awareness of good swim hygiene, which includes showering before swimming (to remove any fecal matter- the quick, already bathing-suited dash under the poolside shower does nothing for this, though it may reduce oils and residue from sunscreens) and refraining from swimming when you have a diarrheal illness. Most importantly, keep a close eye on your non-potty trained toddlers in swim diapers, making sure to check those diapers on an hourly basis.
BOTTOM LINE: Swimming is great fun and generally good for your health, but pay attention to good swim hygiene, and if you develop persistent diarrhea this summer, don’t ignore it- head to your doctor and get checked out (and please stay out of public pools till you are cured.)