A parasite found in swimming pools is causing people to get sick, so here's how to stay safe

With summer underway, you may be tempted to cool off and go swimming in the closest pool you can find. Before hopping in, though, know that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced that illnesses caused by a fecal parasite found in swimming pools have been steadily on the rise.

According to the CDC report, outbreaks of an intestinal illness called cryptosporidiosis increased by approximately 13% each year from 2009 to 2017, with 7,465 Americans becoming sick with diarrhea and vomiting, among other issues. The majority of outbreaks, 35%, were linked to exposure from water. Cryptosporidiosis can come from the parasite cryptosporidium (crypto), which is the leading cause of disease outbreaks associated with water in the U.S. Crypto can cause outbreaks easily since there can be millions of crypto germs in feces, and small amounts of feces can be left on things like swimsuits and pool floats due to people either having diarrhea in the pool or not cleaning themselves before getting in.

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The CDC notes that crypto is a hard parasite to kill, as it can survive for days in chlorinated water in pools, at water-filled playgrounds, or on surfaces disinfected with chlorine bleach. That's scary stuff, but no, it doesn't mean you can't ever go swimming again. It does mean that before hitting up your local pool (or water park, lake, or stream), you should keep some things in mind to stay safe especially since crypto is most commonly seen during the summer months.

First, it's important to understand how the parasite gets transmitted to people. Infection can occur when you swallow the parasite while in water contaminated by fecal matter, and so Dr. Jen Caudle, family physician and associate professor at Rowan University, tells Mic that the primary way to not become infected is to avoid, by any means, swallowing water while swimming.

Additionally, you can help prevent crypto outbreaks by practicing good hygiene. While you unfortunately cannot control what other people do, you can control, says Dr. Caudle. Do not go swimming if you have diarrhea, she says. Also make sure that young children are taken to the bathroom regularly and that their diapers are checked frequently.

If you're feeling sick after taking a dip and you suspect it could be a parasite, the Mayo Clinic notes that cryptosporidiosis symptoms include nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea that can last for weeks. While the CDC says that the illness typically does not become severe enough to warrant medical treatment, it can be dangerous for certain people. People who are in poor health or who have weakened immune systems," explains Dr. Caudle, "are at higher risk for more severe and prolonged illness.

Related: More swim safety tips

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Swim safety tips for parents
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Swim safety tips for parents

Drowning is the leading cause of death for children aged 1 to 4, after birth defects. 

According to the CDC, children ages 1 to 4 have the highest drowning rates, with most drowning incidents occurring in home swimming pools. It's estimated that nearly 800 children in the United States die every year from drowning, with two-thirds of these deaths taking place between the months of May through August.  

There are steps parents can take to prevent such occurrences. Read on to learn more essential pool safety tips -- it can save lives.

There should always be a "water watcher" on duty

Since a drowning can occur in as little as 25 seconds, adults must never leave a child alone in a pool and must always be at arms reach. Turning away for even a second can increase the risk of drowning. Water watchers should not be on their phones and should be hyperaware, even if a lifeguard is present. There is no room for distraction, even if many adults are present. 

"Most young children who drowned in pools were last seen in the home, had been out of sight less than 5 minutes, and were in the care of one or both parents at the time," the CDC says.

According to Parents, in 9 out of 10 drownings, parents say they had been supervising at the time.

Pools should be surrounded by fences 

“Many of these deaths occur when children are not expected to be swimming or when they have unanticipated access to water. Toddlers are naturally curious; that’s why we must implement other strategies, such as pool fencing and door locks," says Dr. Sarah Denny, from the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

"A four-sided isolation fence (separating the pool area from the house and yard) reduces a child’s risk of drowning by 83% compared to three-sided property-line fencing," writes the CDC. The fences should be at least four feet high and the latch should be at least 54 inches from the ground. Tip: Toys should be kept out of the pool when not in use so kids aren't as tempted to enter the pool area. 

Some parents install a pool alarm for extra precaution, but the device doesn't replace parental supervision. 

Formal swimming lessons are essential 

According to reports, swimming lessons can help reduce the risk of drowning in children aged one to four by 88 percent. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) doesn't suggest swim lessons for children under 1-year-old and factors such as his or her comfortability in the water to physical statuses will play a part in choosing when and which program is best. 

It's important to note that lessons, while beneficial, don't "drown proof" a child. According to the AAP, children's basic swim skills should include "ability to enter the water, surface, turn around, propel oneself for at least 25 yards, float on or tread water, and exit the water."

Drowning isn't like the movies 

Unlike what is portrayed in the movies, drowning can be silent: No splashing, no kicking, no yelling. It's quick, and can only take as little as 25 seconds for a child to drown. That's why it's important for parents and supervisors to be vigilant and hyperaware. 

"Toddlers don't yell or splash, and they sink fast," warns Dr. Steven Kernie to Parents

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Still, although symptoms of crypto can be uncomfortable, the good news is that most people with healthy immune systems will be able to recover without treatment, says Dr. Caudle, adding that diarrhea can be managed by drinking plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration."

If you've been diagnosed with the illness, the CDC advises you don't swim for at least two weeks after the diarrhea stops, just in case. Otherwise, though, it's okay to go swimming this summer as long as you're being safe. People shouldn't be afraid of pools, but they should just take the proper precautions," says Dr. Caudle.

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