Madison, WI,
17:12 PM

Protect Your Recreation Dreams by Avoiding Waterborne Illnesses

Don’t let contaminated water ruin your summer fun.


If your summer recreation plans include spending time at the local lake, river or swimming pool, make sure the water you jump into is safe for swimming and won’t make you sick. While water may look clean, there often are risks of contracting illnesses from bacteria, viruses and algae blooms.

Recreational water illnesses (RWIs) are caused by swallowing, breathing in mists, or having contact with contaminated water in lakes, rivers, oceans, swimming pools and hot tubs. RWIs include a wide variety of illnesses such as gastrointestinal, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic and open wound infections. With common sense and caution, you can reduce your chance of getting an RWI when swimming.

Caution is the best protection

When it comes to waterborne illnesses, caution is always the best approach. When swimming, waterskiing or playing in water, consider using nose clips to prevent water from getting in your nostrils. Avoid stagnant water and obey any posted "No Swimming" signs, or signs warning of health hazards. Always be careful to avoid swallowing untreated water.

Generally, the safest places to swim are municipal and private pools that are monitored for filtration and chlorine content. Be careful though, as some bacteria or viruses can live for days in properly chlorinated water.

Natural bodies of water have their own set of concerns. Lakes and rivers can become contaminated by runoff from farm fields following a heavy rain. One of the more common and dangerous causes of water contamination are blue-green algae blooms.

Here are some pointers if you encounter blue-green algae blooms.

  • Don't swim, water ski or boat in areas where the water is discolored or if you see foam, scum or mats of algae on the water.
  • If you swim in water that might have an algae bloom, rinse off with fresh water as soon as possible.
  • Don't let pets swim in or drink from areas where you suspect algae blooms are present.
  • If pets (especially dogs) swim in scummy water, rinse them off immediately - do not let them lick the algae off their fur. The toxins can be fatal to dogs.
  • Respect any beach closures announced by local public health authorities.
  • Do not drink, wash dishes or prepare food with water where blue-green algae is present. Even boiling does not make it safe.
  • Get medical treatment right away if you think you or your pet may have come in contact with blue-green algae blooms.

No matter where you swim, always shower off as soon as you get out of the water.

If you have questions about recreational water safety, contact your local public health authority for any advisories or warnings.

Check out these related resources:

Water Safety Tips for Kids

Summer Safety Tips for Kids and Adults