Teach Your Children Well: Shower before Swimming

You are heading off to your community pool. The mental check list goes…

Sunscreen?  Yes.

Bathing suit?  Of course.

Shower?  Probably not.

Although the “shower before you swim” rule is consistently posted at community pools, a new University of Michigan report shows parents of young children do not appreciate the role showering plays in keeping swimming pools safe for the community (see video).  Whereas 64 percent of parents understand it is very important for children to avoid swallowing pool water, only 26 percent believe it very important to shower before swimming.  This study highlights the need to educate parents on swimmer hygiene.

The researchers polled 865 parents of elementary school children, aged 5 to 12 years old.  More than twice as many parents surveyed believe drowning at a water park is a significant risk compared to those who perceive a high potential risk of getting sick from the water in these settings.

Showering before swimming or visiting a water park is a must because it helps remove trace levels of fecal matter and associated pathogens on human skin.  Put bluntly, the most critical area of the body to wash is your bottom. Not surprisingly, young children and babies in diapers are very likely to contribute fecal matter to pools.  An ongoing shigellosis outbreak in northern Kentucky pools has caused the local health department to prohibit children who are not yet potty-trained from accessing pools (see blog).  Shigellosis causes diarrhea and is transmitted through inadvertent contact with fecal matter of infected individuals.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recreational water illnesses (RWIs) are on the rise. RWIs are caused by germs spread by swallowing, breathing in mists or aerosols or having contact with contaminated water in swimming pools, hot tubs, water parks, water play areas, interactive fountains, lakes, rivers, or oceans. More than 10,000 Americans are sickened annually by RWIs, which can cause diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and fever or skin, ear, respiratory and eye infections.

Sixty-five percent of parents polled agree that preventing RWIs is a shared responsibility between parents and pool staff; 28 percent believe that preventing infections is the sole responsibility of the water park staff. Chlorine and proper pool chemistry kill most of the germs that cause recreational water illnesses within an hour, and are essential to good pool management, but Cryptosporidium, a parasite that causes abdominal cramping, diarrhea and nausea, can survive for days even in properly disinfected pool.

The solution to preventing RWIs is a collaborative effort between park and pool operators and swimmers. The following simple preventive measures require the cooperation of informed parents:

  • Shower or wash all parts of your body thoroughly with soap and water before swimming, paying special attention to the diaper areas of young children.
  • Take children on bathroom breaks and check infant diapers often.
  • Remind children to avoid swallowing water or getting water in their mouths.
  • Do not swim if ill with diarrhea.

Healthy pools are a shared responsibility.  Parents, teach your children well:  Shower before swimming!

Joan Rose, PhD, is the Homer Nowlin Chair in Water Research at Michigan State University and a member of the Water Quality and Health Council.