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Avoid swimming-related illnesses at camp

Summer has arrived, which means people will be seeking opportunities to cool off, splash about or relax at their favorite watering holes - whether that is a pool, lake or pond, ocean or river, water playground or even a hot tub. Swimming at summer camp is no different. It is often at the heart of the daily program schedule as a favorite activity for both campers and staff. We have all heard the warning: Anywhere there is water, there is a risk of drowning. However, downing is not the only major water-related risk you should be prepared to prevent. Recreational water can be a ripe breeding ground for diseases that can spread quickly when water is contaminated with germs.

Recreational water illnesses (RWIs) are spread by swallowing, breathing or having contact with contaminated water. RWIs can lead to a variety of skin, ear, respiratory, ocular, neurologic and gastrointestinal problems. Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Shigella, norovirus and E. Coli are the most commonly encountered RWIs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people usually have about .14 grams of feces (similar to a few grains of sand) on their body at any given time. Every swimmer who enters the water shares the bacteria in it. Swallowing even a small amount of water infected with diarrhea-causing bacteria can get you sick.

While you can’t completely control your water environment, your job as a camp administrator or staff member is to make it as safe as possible so disease doesn’t spread. Here, Church Mutual offers suggestions for avoiding RWIs.


  1. Instruct campers and staff to shower both before and after entering the water. When swimmers wash themselves beforehand, they protect others from any germs or RWIs that may be on their body. Washing after swimming will remove any RWIs that may have gotten on the body while in the water.
  2. If you have diarrhea, don't swim. This may sound obvious, but unfortunately it happens more often than one may think.
  3. Don’t drink or swallow the water. Splashing water in other people's faces and dunking can also result in water getting into someone's mouth by accident, which is another reason why these actions should be avoided.
  4. Encourage campers to take frequent bathroom breaks while they are using the water. Emphasize that they shouldn’t simply relieve themselves in the water, because that could cause harm to others who are swimming. Stress to everyone the importance of washing hands after going to the bathroom as well.
  5. Avoid swimming immediately after it rains. Rain can wash contaminants from the land, such as septic tank overflows and animal feces, into the water.
  6. If campers are using hot tubs or other warm-water facilities, instruct them to clean their swimsuits immediately after leaving the water. The germ Pseudomonas aeruginosa is common in water and can cause dermatitis. Chlorine and other disinfectants tend to break down more quickly in warm water, which is why swimmers are more likely to contract dermatitis in a hot tub. When they clean their swimsuit, the germ is less likely to be in contact with their skin for a long period of time.

Pool Operators and Personnel:

  • Educate Personnel. Make sure all lifeguards and pool staff are aware of the risks from RWIs and how to avoid them.
  • Inform Swimmers. Communicate your facility’s policies on water cleanliness and risks posed by RWIs to all swimmers.
  • Test and Maintain Water Frequently: Making sure your swimming water is properly disinfected is the best way to ensure any contaminants that do enter the water are killed quickly. You should be using chlorine or bromine to properly disinfect your pools. The CDC recommends a pH level of 7.2–7.8 and a free chlorine concentration of at least 1 ppm in pools, and at least 3 ppm in hot tubs. Test your chlorine and pH levels regularly; a good rule of thumb is to test once a day, at the same time every day.
  • Share Information: Post signage throughout your facility reminding members and guests to shower before and after swimming and explaining the dangers of RWIs.
  • Provide adequate space and opportunities for personal hygiene. Make sure there are enough showers, sinks and hand sanitizing stations to allow swimmers to clean themselves before and after swimming.

The last thing you want at your camp is an outbreak of an RWI. To ensure a fun, healthy and RWI-free swimming experience, make sure to heed the suggestions above.

For more tips on staying safe at camp, visit