Shut your mouth: Diarrhea-causing parasite linked to pools, playgrounds

Do not swallow the water you swim in, and do not swim if you have diarrhea — That’s the message health officials are sharing ahead of the July Fourth holiday in hopes to stop the spread of a parasite that’s causing more Americans to get sick.

Data collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found an increase in the number of outbreaks of Cryptosporidium (or Crypto, for short) between 2009 and 2017. One-third of the 444 total outbreaks, which resulted in 7,465 people getting sick, were linked to pools and water playgrounds.

Michele Hlavsa, chief of the CDC’s Healthy Swimming Program, explained Crypto is a parasite that is found in the fecal matter of a person (or animal) who has been infected by Crypto. People can get sick after contact or after swallowing contaminated water or food. Just a few Crypto germs can cause diarrhea that lasts up to three weeks in healthy adults.

“People with weakened immune systems, so people who take medications after organ transplants or people on chemotherapy, they might develop life-threatening symptoms. They might not be able to absorb nutrients anymore, they’ll lose a massive amount of weight quickly, so this is a serious illness,” Hlavsa said.

The parasite’s tough outer shell allows it to survive for a long time, even in chemically treated pools. Hlavsa said chlorine does not work instantly, and the “the water we swim in is not sterile.”

“When it comes to Crypto, it can survive for seven or more days in a well-maintained pool,” Hlavsa said.

“So we’ve got to keep the Crypto out of the water to begin with, and that means not swimming with diarrhea and not letting our kids swim with diarrhea. And if we have to tell the public not to be swimming with diarrhea, we shouldn’t be swallowing the water we swim in.”

Hlavsa’s other advice for the public? Wash your hands with soap and water.

“Those hand sanitizers that are based on alcohol, they don’t work against Crypto, so hand washing with soap and water is really important,” she said.

“We find Crypto in the poop of infected animals and infected people, particularly young children, so wash your hands after touching animals or being in their living space; wash your hands after changing a diaper.”

Even though a well-chlorinated pool does not guarantee a Crypto-free swimming experience, Hlavsa recommends checking inspection scores at public pools and playgrounds to make sure the water is treated appropriately.

“We want people to have a great time in the pool this summer — it’s a great way to be active and spend time with friends and family. We’re just asking people to do it in a healthier and safer way to share the fun and not the germs,” Hlavsa said.

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