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Summer swimming safety: Avoiding water and heat related illnesses

Ryan Wilson

It’s summertime in South Carolina. The heat, like the humidity, seems similar to the temperature of the sun that’s beating on your skin. Now, more than pretty much any other time of the year, you’re probably thinking of being on the beach.

But before you start swimming in the sea, DHEC Assistant State Epidemiologist Dr. Jane Kelly, says there’s something you should be wary of: the germs wading in the water. “Of course lakes, pools, and the ocean are not sterile environments,” Kelly says.

Such environments may not be the most clean spaces to swim, but Kelly says it’s normal to see a certain amount of bacteria in water. “Knowing that, you do want to avoid drinking or breathing in or getting water up your nose, even in a clean lake that doesn’t have any serious, deadly bacteria.”

But some bacteria that can cause severe sickness are coliform bacteria like E. coli, which can show up after a natural event, like heavy rain, brings runoff from the land into the water, picking up animal waste that might have been lying around. Dr. Kelly says that coliform bacteria, like E. coli, can cause diseases like diarrhea.

So how do you know when not to go for a swim? It’s pretty simple, really, you just need to check the water. Dr. Kelly says that some signs of bacteria-filled water include:

  • Discoloration
  • Masses of green algae or brown, scummy foam
  • Bad smell

Seems easy enough: if the water looks bad and smells bad, it’s probably bad. But some germs are harder to spot because there’s no true way to tell if they’re there.
Dr. Kelly mentions that one example is cryptosporidium, a parasite that can cause severe diarrhea. “Cryptosporidium spreads from person to person. If a person had cryptosporidium and went swimming in a pool or if a child was in the pool with cryptosporidium and didn’t have the right kind of swim diaper, for example, that’s how it might be spread person to person.” Kelly adds that parasites and other germs like these can live even in clean environments like well-maintained pools.

But it’s not just what’s in the water to keep in mind. Mandy McWherter, regional communications director with the South Carolina Division of the American Red Cross, says that, while it’s nice to cool off in the water, it’s easily to forget about the high heat, which can lead to:

  • Heat exhaustion, which causes cramps, heavy sweating and nausea
  • Heat strokes, which leads to high fevers and loss of consciousness

While heat exhaustion can be treated with cold water and being moved to a cool area heat strokes are clearly a lot more dangerous. “Heat strokes are a very serious illness, so you’re going to want to call 911 right away,” McWherter says. Which, in that case, it’s best to move someone with a heat stroke somewhere cool and leave them be until paramedics get there.
Whether it’s a water or heat related illness, McWherter says it’s best to get someone treated as soon as possible if they’re sick. But that doesn’t mean you have to spend your summer in fear.

“Apply common sense. If you’re in doubt, play it safe,” says Kelly.

Finn Carlin was an 2022 ETV Endowment intern working with SC Public Radio to produce news content. He is now an occasional news contributor.