Take a dip into summer swimming tips: How to prevent sickness in natural bodies of water

As summer approaches and many families take to the beach, D.C.-area doctors are making sure you have the information you need to know to stay healthy when swimming in natural bodies of water — oceans, lakes and rivers among them​.

Dr. Amar Athwal with Kaiser Permanente said, especially after what’s already happened at Lake Anna this season, there are crucial steps you can take to dramatically reduce the risk of infection or sickness when you take a dip this summer.

“Natural bodies of water do contain infectious materials,” Athwal told WTOP. “It’s just not necessarily crystal clean water or the same as chlorinated water in a pool. It does contain a lot of other things in it.”

He said that a lot of the time, it’s nothing to worry about. But toxins from farm waste, human and animal waste, and other materials can make it and cause sickness.

The good news is that staying healthy can be incredibly easy to do.

For example, the Virginia Department of Health is asking those in and around the Lake Anna area in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, who visited on Memorial Day weekend and have started experiencing symptoms, such as stomach cramps and diarrhea, to contact their local health department and seek medical care.

It also wants swimmers and boaters in natural bodies of water to avoid interacting with water while sick, suffering from cuts, or dealing with any open wounds. A tip that Dr. Athwal said is extremely important.

“We recommend that if you are sick, with any illness — but especially with bowel illnesses like diarrhea, you should stay out of the water,” he said. This is because, even if you’re not around anyone, whatever infection your body may be fighting can transmit through the water to others.

VDH also encourages everyone taking a dip in natural waters to:

  • Wash their hands when using the bathroom and before doing any cooking.
  • Avoid swimming near storm drains.
  • Avoid swimming with symptoms like vomiting or diarrhea.
  • Keep pets and people from water that has a green film, which could cause sickness.
  • Take a shower or bath to wash off germs after swimming.
  • Avoid swimming in natural bodies of water for at least three days after heavy rain.
  • Dispose of human waste at marinas with proper dumping stations or pump out units.

Officials also said those who are immunocompromised should speak with their doctor before deciding to swim in natural and untreated bodies of water like oceans, rivers and lakes.

As for those without immune system issues, there isn’t too much reason to over-worry.

“If you do ingest water, be on the lookout (for) anything like diarrhea, vomiting or any other unusual symptoms,” Dr. Anthwal told WTOP.

He also said with proper hygiene — and a little common sense — you should be much safer at your local swimming spots this summer.

WTOP’s Ivy Lyons contributed to this report.

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Matt Kaufax

If there's an off-the-beaten-path type of attraction, person, or phenomenon in the DC area that you think more people should know about, Matt is your guy. As the features reporter for WTOP, he's always on the hunt for stories that provide a unique local flavor—a slice of life if you will.

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