2014 Norovirus Outbreak Highlights Potential Health Risks of Swimming in Untreated Water

diarrhea and water poster CDC
Image: Pixabay
May 15, 2015

While drowning poses the greatest safety risk related to swimming in pools, lakes and ponds, some may not realize that untreated water can also make you ill.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is using an Oregon norovirus outbreak to highlight the potential health risks associated with swimming in untreated waters as well as how becoming infected with bugs like norovirus can be prevented.

The July 2014 norovirus outbreak linked to a lake near Portland, Ore. sickened 70 people. Not everyone who fell ill went swimming, but those that did were more than twice as likely to develop vomiting and diarrhea. More than half of those who became ill were children between four and 10 years old.

The outbreak likely began after a swimmer infected with norovirus had diarrhea or vomited in the water, contaminating it, and putting other swimmers at risk. The lake was subsequently closed to swimmers for 10 days.

"Children are prime targets for norovirus and other germs that can live in lakes and swimming pools because they're so much more likely to get the water in their mouths," The CDC's Michael Beach said in a press release.

The CDC says norovirus was the second-leading cause of outbreaks in untreated recreational water, such as lakes, between 1978 and 2010. Unlike pools, which are treated with chlorine, lakes and ponds pose an increased risk of contamination as the virus can live in the water for several months or possibly even years.

A few simple steps can keep a trip to the lake an enjoyable event and not a cause for illness.

One of the most effective ways to prevent norovirus contamination is to keep the virus out of the water. Keep pee, poop and sweat out of water by going to the bathroom before diving in. A lake is not a toilet for humans.

If possible, rinse sweat off in the shower and don't go swimming if you have diarrhea or you've been vomiting.

Parents should pull kids from the water for regular bathroom breaks to avoid accidents. Diapers should be checked regularly and changed in the bathroom or other diaper-changing area to keep germs away from the water. Forgo regular diapers and opt for swim diapers which won't break down or leak while your child is swimming.

Prevent illness by trying to avoid swallowing water when swimming and by showering when you're done.

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