The hazards of summer

Summer is supposed to be one of the best times of the year, but it’s not a good thing if a weekend at the lake turns into a trip to the emergency room, or worse.

The months of June, July and August bring hazards ranging from bug bites and sunburn to heat stroke, West Nile virus and drowning.

Most drownings are preventable, yet 3,000 Americans drown each year. Among children ages 1-4, it’s a leading cause of death – and for every child who drowns, more than 10 others need emergency treatment for near-drowning, says the American College of Emergency Physicians.

The ACEP’s advice for water safety:

- Watch children every second they are near pools, hot tubs, beaches, lakes or any areas involving water.

- Teach children to swim as early as possible, preferably using qualified swimming instructors.

- Make sure no one swims alone. Always have someone nearby in case of an emergency.

- Install safety fences with locks around pools and hot tubs.

- Young children should always have life vests or approved personal flotation devices whenever they are near water.

- Don’t push or jump on others while in the water.

- Never consume alcohol and swim.

- Never dive into unfamiliar water.

- If you’re at the beach, public pool, swimming lake or pond, make sure a certified lifeguard is nearby.

- Avoid cliff edges, stay behind fences and obey warning signs.

- Always swim or surf in designated areas.

- Know basic CPR skills that can be used in an emergency. There are more tips on CPR and water safety, plus other summertime hazards, at Emergency Care for You.org.

It’s not just the water that’s a risk; often it’s the bacteria, parasites and other pathogens lurking in the water that can end up ruining someone’s summer weekend. The University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health issued a reminder this week that recreational water – pools and hot tubs as well as lakes and rivers – can be sources for gastrointestinal illnesses; skin, eye and ear infections; and respiratory, neurological and viral problems.

Dr. Dennis Maki, a professor of medicine and infectious-disease specialist at the UW, said the safest places to swim are generally municipal and private pools, which are monitored for their chlorine content. But some pathogens, such as cryptosporidium, can live for days even when the water is properly chlorinated, he said.

The most common health problems associated with pools are gastrointestinal illnesses and skin rashes. It’s possible to become infected by swallowing pool water.

"Water parks can be especially troublesome because so many people swim and play in the water that recirculates and can lose chlorine residual quickly," Maki said in a news release.

A study by the Wisconsin Division of Health found that cushioned and padded surfaces, designed to reduce water-park injuries, also can harbor bacteria.

Hot tubs probably pose the greatest risk of contracting an infectious illness from water. The warm and stagnant water is an ideal breeding ground for bacteria, fungi and viruses. If you own a hot tub, it’s important to monitor the chlorine and pH levels and to drain and clean the tub regularly.

Natural bodies of water also present their own set of risks. Lakes and rivers can be contaminated by runoff from farm fields following a heavy rain. Maki said the water can contain very high counts of coliform bacteria and other microorganisms that cause gastrointestinal illness or, in the case of near-drowning, life-threatening pneumonia.

There’s also the risk of skin infections. Swimmer’s itch, or cercarial dermatitis, usually doesn’t require medical care but can be extremely uncomfortable and itchy. More serious skin infections can occur with cuts or abrasions, especially major soft-tissue injuries, and pose the greatest risks to people with compromised immune systems.

Recommended safety precautions from the CDC for preventing water-related illness:

- Adults and children with diarrhea should not use swimming pools, hot tubs or water parks.

- Shower with soap and tap water before swimming or getting into a hot tub, and again afterwards.

- Wash your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom and before re-entering the water.

- Avoid swallowing water.

- Don’t swim in warm, stagnant water or use poorly maintained hot tubs or pools.

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