5 Summer Swimming Hazards

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Summer days are prime time for going barefoot, lounging poolside (or lakeside) and going for a dip. But while playing in water is a favorite summer pastime, swimming hazards are common — and potentially dangerous.

“Swimming is a popular sport, but it also claims the lives of 400,000 Americans each year,” says Giuseppe Perrotta, M.D., an emergency medicine physician at Henry Ford Health System. “In addition, incidents that don’t involve a death are often underreported, so the toll of swimming-related accidents and illnesses is quite high.”

Swimming Hazards 101

The sun and heat get the lion’s share of attention when it comes to summer health hazards. But whether you’re splashing around in a kiddie pool or swimming in a lake, water can also pose health risks ranging from minor to deadly. Here are the top summer swimming hazards and how to stay safe and healthy:

1. Drowning: Every day, about 10 Americans die from unintentional drowning. About two of those each day are children under the age 14. Whether you’re swimming at home or at a public pool, it’s important to be vigilant — even if there’s a lifeguard on duty. Drowning can happen in minutes.

What to do: Set ground rules with your children before they (or you) get into the pool. If your child is using a flotation device, make sure it’s U.S. Coast Guard-certified. Locate rescue rings, life jackets and automated external defibrillators (AEDs) as soon as you get to the pool and always make sure an adult supervises swimming children.

“If you are the on-site adult, you should not be drinking alcohol and you should avoid distractions such as Facebook, Instagram, card games or even an engrossing conversation with friends,” Dr. Perrotta says.

2. Bacterial infections: There’s a risk of getting a bacterial infection at any public venue, such as a river, lake or pool. Called recreational water illnesses, or RWI, these infections come from germs and bacteria in the water or mist. Infections can affect the skin or gastrointestinal tract. The most common bugs are cryptosporidium, giardia, norovirus and Escherichia coli (E. coli) — all four of which can cause diarrhea. Cryptosporidium is especially hardy; it can last up to a week in the water.

What to do:“If your child is sick, don’t bring him or her to the pool,” Dr. Perrotta says. Also, make sure to shower before you get in the pool and after you get out. Washing helps rid your body of sweat, blood and germs. Most important, don’t get into the pool if you have any open wounds.

3. Swimmer’s ear: Swimmer’s ear is an infection of the outer ear canal that commonly occurs in swimmers. When water remains in the canal, it creates a moist environment for bacteria to grow and spread. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and may include itching, redness and pain.

What to do: Dry your ears thoroughly when you get out of the pool. You can also tip your head to allow water to drain from your ear canal. If symptoms don’t clear up, see your doctor. You may need topical or oral antibiotics.

4. Swimmer’s itch: Swimmer’s itch is a unique reaction to parasites that burrow into the skin. The hosts are usually birds and other animals that reside in natural bodies of water like ponds and lakes. Humans are not an appropriate host for the parasites, so they just burrow into the skin and die. The rash only appears on body parts that are exposed to the water.

What to do: After swimming in a natural body of water, be sure to shower thoroughly. If you do get swimmers itch, antihistamines like Benadryl or oatmeal baths can provide relief. The good news: Symptoms typically pass quickly.

5. Jellyfish stings: Most people don’t even realize they’ve been stung by a jellyfish. Jellyfish stings are usually harmless and go away with topical antihistamines or oral Benadryl. However, there are some species of jellyfish that inject a potent neurotoxin that can cause a coma or death.

What to do: Look for the sting, remove the stingers and apply vinegar to the site to inhibit the discharge of toxin. Then wash it with sea water – not fresh water. “Fresh water activates the little stingers and makes pain worse,” Dr. Perotta says.

Swim Safe

Drowning is still the greatest — and deadliest — risk of swimming. If your children can’t swim, make sure they’re wearing Coast Guard-approved life jackets and have constant supervision. Even if they’re confident swimmers, it’s still important to be cautious.

Most adult deaths associated with water recreation, including boating accidents, involve alcohol. “Among those who die in a boating accident, 80 percent were not wearing a life jacket,” Dr. Perrotta says.

Pay attention to lifeguard-posted signs, be aware of strong rip tides and currents and heed do-not-swim warnings, and when it comes to any water activity, play it safe.


Need care now? To find out about same-day care options at Henry Ford, or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

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Dr. Giuseppe Perrotta is an emergency medicine physician, seeing patients in the ER at Henry Ford Medical Center – Cottage in Grosse Pointe Farms, Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.

Categories: FeelWell

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