Updated August 2, 2023.
When it’s hot outside, there’s nothing better than heading to the shore or community pool for a refreshing dip. But before you dive in, you’ll want to take some safety precautions to prevent swimming-related injuries — everything from sunburns to jellyfish stings — and water-related illnesses like diarrhea and skin infections. The good news is, the majority of these conditions usually resolve themselves in a few days, and you’re unlikely to contract anything much more serious.
“You may have heard about dangerous bacteria or people getting, say, encephalitis from swimming, but that’s really rare,” says Honore Lansen, MD, an integrative and family medicine physician at our Wall Street office. “The thing you’re most likely to get is diarrhea.” So there’s no reason you need to stay dry this summer. With a little information on what to watch out for and these eight tips, you can cool off and keep yourself and your loved ones safe all season long.
1. Avoid swallowing water.
Lansen’s top summer safety tip? Although it’s difficult to avoid completely, try not to swallow water when you’re swimming. This simple step will help keep you from ingesting bacteria and parasites that could be lurking in the water. Every time you hit the pool, lake, or beach, remind the kids not to swallow, too.
2. Rinse off before diving in.
Avoiding swallowing water is a way to protect yourself, while showering before swimming protects others. To make sure you’re not spreading germs, rinse off for one minute in warm water before getting in a pool or hot tub. Rinsing alone — you don’t even need soap! — should remove most of the dirt or any contaminants on your body. And don’t forget to wash your hands with soap and water after using the bathroom or changing a diaper.
3. Stay out of the water if you have diarrhea.
Diarrhea is the most common water-related illness. When diarrhea happens, one bowel movement can contain anywhere from hundreds of millions to one billion germs, and it’s really easy for microscopic amounts of fecal matter to stick to skin — and rinse off into a body of water. Don’t put others at risk: If you have diarrhea, skip swimming until your symptoms are completely gone for several days.
4. Take breaks every hour.
Whether you’re enjoying a leisurely float or riding waves, it can be tough to tear yourself away from the water (especially when temps creep above 85 degrees). Still, Lansen recommends breaks about once every hour. “Partly to take bathroom breaks, or check diapers if you have a baby, partly to reapply sunscreen,” she says. Most sunscreens last only 80 to 90 minutes, and that can be even less if you’re swimming — so don’t forget to reup throughout the day. And with diaper changes, make sure to handle those in a designated area away from water.
And one last thing to do while you’re up: Dry your ears and your kids’ to reduce the risk of swimmer’s ear, a bacterial infection that can grow from excess moisture in the ear canal. A quick towel-dry will do the trick (avoid cotton swabs, which can do more harm than good).
5. Restock your sunscreen stash.
By now, we all know that sunscreen is a non-negotiable. Go for a product with an SPF of 15 or higher that blocks both UVA and UVB rays, and reapply often from head to toe. Just don’t forget to check the expiration date! “It’s something that’s so easy to do, but we often forget about it. Expired sunscreen is just not as effective,” says Lansen. Go through every bottle and tube and discard those that are past their prime, and try to make a practice of doing so at the start of every summer.
6. Take a look around.
At the public pool, there are a few quick safety checks you can do to ease your mind. First, make sure the drains are visible and that drain covers are secure with no cracks. If you want to go a step further, ask to see the pool’s latest safety inspection results. You can also buy test strips from a hardware store that will tell you whether the water’s pH and chlorine levels are adequate.
7. Never take your eyes off the kids.
“This can’t be overstated: keep an eye on kids at all times,” says Lansen. “Drowning can happen in seconds and in silence.” As a parent or caretaker, you have to be diligent, as even the best lifeguards can miss something at a crowded beach or pool. If there isn’t a lifeguard on duty, make sure you know where the safety equipment is stored.
8. Treat cuts and stings promptly.
Ever heard that the best way to treat a jellyfish sting is to pee on it? Don’t! It can actually make things worse. The myth came from the idea that urine helps counteract the pH of the venom, but urine doesn’t have the proper levels. What might work instead? Warm water and vinegar. Consider keeping a bottle of vinegar in your first aid kit for trips to the beach. If you get stung, first rinse with sea water. Then soak the area in hot water until the pain improves. Be careful that the water is not scalding hot - it should be 110 to 113 degrees fahrenheit (43 to 45 degrees celsius). Rinse with vinegar for 15 minutes. Seek urgent in-person medical attention for severe pain, hives, difficulty breathing, vomiting, or stings on the eyes or mouth.
To treat a scrape, get out of the water, clean the area well with soap and fresh water, pat it dry, and put a waterproof bandage on it. If blood was drawn, keep an eye on the area for the next few days for signs of redness or swelling.
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