With the weather warming up, families are lathering up their sunblock in preparation of outdoor fun. For many families that will include a dip in a backyard pool or a visit to a local water park.
There are 8.8 million residential swimming pools and 339 million pool visits recorded each year for individuals over the age of six in the US. Of adults, 17 percent swim at least six times a year and 41 percent of children between the ages of 7 and 17 swim half a dozen times each year.
While swimming is a popular way to cool off during the hot summer months, it's not without risks. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a recent report that indicated that drowning is still the top cause of death for children between 1 and 4 years old. Each day, 10 people die from drowning and at least two of those individuals are under the age of 15.
Among drowning victims that do survive, more than half are hospitalized or transferred for additional care, the CDC found. Survivors often are left with brain damage that can result in lingering disabilities or even permanent loss of basic brain function.
Though the statistics may sound scary, drowning is easily preventable. In fact, many of the measures used to avoid drowning are so simple you might wonder why you never thought of them sooner.
Supervision is key
It may sound like a simple piece of advice, but always supervise children around water. Children can drown in as little as an inch of water so while the situation may not seem dangerous, it very well could be.
"No one will get to the child faster than the parent of the child, whether at Schlitterbahn or a backyard pool," noted Jeffrey Siebert, a spokesman for Schlitterbahn Waterparks."For adults we suggest the buddy system. Following these will almost completely alleviate drowning."
Siebert also recommends swimming lessons for young children, which also offers the benefits of lifesaving techniques and confidence building. Caregivers of young children are also encouraged to learn CPR.
Whether it's swimming in naturally-flowing lakes or rivers, boating or hitting the water slides at water parks, don't hesitate to put on a life jacket. Children aren't the only ones that benefit from the lifesaving devices.
"We offer free life jackets at all our parks from small to large sizes. These are designed for anyone who is a weak swimmer," Siebert said.
Home swimming pools also should be separated from the house and yard by a fence with a self-closing and self-latching gate for added safety. Even if it's not your own children who decide to take a dip alone, a neighbor's child could walk over unexpectedly or a visiting child could take a sudden interest in the pool.
Preventing waterborne illness
Preventing waterborne illnesses isn't necessarily a difficult job, but it does require participation from parents and swimmers themselves. Though pools and water parks chlorinate the water to kill germs, and may have other germ-killing mechanisms such as UV technology, the germs aren't killed instantly -- even in pools that are properly chlorinated.
It can take minutes or even days for some germs to be killed, according to the CDC. The most commonly reported recreation illness is diarrhea caused by germs such as Cryptosporidium (Crypto), Giardia, Shigella, norovirus and E. coli O157:H7. Children, pregnant women and those with a weakened immune system tend to be most susceptible to suffering from severe illness if infected.
Incidents of swimming pool-related diarrhea outbreaks, often caused by Crypto, have steadily increased in recent years. According to the CDC, Crypto cases have increased 200 percent in just four years. In 2004, 3,411 cases of diarrheal illness caused by Crypto were reported. That number jumped to 10,500 in 2008.
Crypto is one of few germs tolerant of chlorine, making maintenance of a healthy pool essential. A 2010 study revealed that one out of every eight pubic pools was immediately closed following inspection because of improper chlorine levels or serious code violations.
However, there are ways to protect yourself and your family. These tips can help.
Don't swallow the water. Germs can still be present even in water treated with chemicals. Swallowing even a little bit can make you sick with a recreational water illness. This category includes numerous infections, such as gastrointestinal, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic and wound infections.
Shower with soap prior to swimming in a pool or water park. It isn't meant to be an optional suggestion. It helps ensure the safety of all guests and makes sure germs on your body don't wind up in the water.
Soap up small children well prior to swimming, especially around the diaper area. Even invisible amounts of fecal matter can end up in the pool.
Check diapers every half hour to every hour and change them in a timely manner. Avoid changing diapers on the side of the pool where germs can spread.
Don't skip bathroom breaks for older children. Take them every 30 minutes to hourly instead of waiting for them to ask to go when it may already be too late.
Use swim diapers for babies or toddlers. They can dramatically help reduce the chance that germs will spread.
Wash your hands thoroughly before returning to a pool area after changing a diaper or after using the bathroom.
Skip swimming altogether if you have diarrhea. The same goes for a baby or child with diarrhea.
Don't swim in natural water if it looks murky or unpleasant. Think twice about getting into rivers and streams, especially after large rain storms.
"If there's been a lot of rain and the water doesn't look good, don't get in," said Siebert, who noted that long periods without rain also could affect natural swimming areas.