Don’t Drink the Water! Avoiding RWIs

Recreational water illnesses, or RWIs, are one of the serious fun-stoppers of warm weather. The term refers to illnesses contracted from water in swimming pools, splash pads, and water play areas, as well as natural recreational water like lakes and rivers.

While it’s possible to get RWIs from inhaling an aerosol mist or even just skin contact, the CDC says the most important step to keep kids from coming down with RWIs is to convince them not to drink the water when they’re swimming or playing in pools, water parks, and other water fun locations.

What’s a recreational water illness?

While there are quite a few illnesses that can spread in water, the two germs that parents are most likely to run into are cryptosporidium (“Crypto” for short) and E. coli. Both are spread in fecal matter. A diapered baby in a swimming pool or a tot who has an accident can contaminate an entire swimming pool.

Even without an accident, the germs can live on someone’s skin and be washed into the pool as the swimmer moves through the water.

The most common symptom from infection with these germs is diarrhea. Someone infected with either of these germs (and other, less common ones like Giardia) may experience two to three weeks of diarrhea. They may be able to spread the disease for a couple of weeks after they’ve recovered, too.

Cramps and nausea are other symptoms to watch for.

What about chlorine?

Chlorine will kill the germs that cause diarrhea, but it takes some time. Just as Crypto and E. coli can live on your child’s body for some time, they can live in a chlorinated pool for several days. That’s plenty of time to infect people.

Giardia has a hard shell that protects it from chlorine for quite a while.

Since you can’t tell if water is contaminated by looking at it, you don’t know whether there are dangerous E. coli or Crypto germs in the water at the moment that your child arrives at the pool. Your kids can easily be infected between the time the germs enter the water and the time the chlorine kills the germs.

Should children see a pediatrician for RWIs?

Diarrhea may be unpleasant, but it can also lead to dehydration, which can be dangerous. Seek medical help if your child has these symptoms:

  • diarrhea lasting more than five days
  • diarrhea containing blood
  • fever or chills with diarrhea
  • signs of dehydration, such as fewer than four wet diapers or trips to the bathroom a day or crying with no tears
  • your child is unable to keep foods or liquids down

How to avoid RWIs

First, don’t swim if you have diarrhea and don’t allow your children to do so. Wait two weeks after a bout of diarrhea before you go swimming again. This is important for the health of your entire community.

Surprisingly, a survey by the Water Quality and Health Council found that 25% of adults surveyed said that they would swim if they had diarrhea, and more than half wouldn’t shower before getting into the water. Kids are usually less fastidious than adults, so it’s important for parents to take responsibility.

The most important step to avoid RWIs: teach your kids not to drink the water they swim or play in. Click To Tweet

This can be tough, but it’s worth reminding kids every time they visit a swimming pool or splash pad. Changing this one behavior will keep them safe from most RWIs.

There are steps you can take when you’re out having water fun, too. Shower, and have your kids shower, before getting into the pool or the lake. Public water play spaces often have public showers for just this purpose.

Call regular bathroom breaks to make it less likely that kids will forget or have accidents. Little children may not want to get out of the water to go to the bathroom — they may feel like they’ll miss out on the fun. Vigilance on the part of parents can help.

Change babies in a bathroom or other regular changing space, not poolside. Use swim diapers and check them regularly.

Crypto in particular has been on the increase in recent years, with spikes in cases every summer. As a community, we can end this trend.

Beyond the pool

Swimming pools and water parks are the biggest culprits in the spread of RWIs, but don’t overlook natural water recreation. Swallowing water while swimming in a lake or choosing to drink from a stream can put kids in contact with RWI germs, too.

If you have any questions about RWIs or about treating diarrhea, ask your pediatrician.