Cryptosporidium: Is it safe to swim?

Somewhere between getting my daughter in her clothing and pouring cereal for my son this morning I heard the word “cryptosporidium” come out of the news anchor’s mouth. It made me stop and tune in.

I took a parasitology class in grad school and I loved every minute of it because parasites are SO interesting. Cryptosporidium (crypto) is a parasite that can wreak havoc on your digestive system for weeks, and apparently outbreaks are on the rise in swimming pools across the country.

Crypto is a parasite that can survive in damp environments for 2-6 months before it needs to find a host to live in. It can be ingested by and then live in any mammal and cause mild to severe (even fatal) watery diarrhea–the disease cryptosporidiosis. Crypto’s lifecycle completes when the animal passes it in its feces so it can infect the next host.

Okay, pause. Back when I took this class the professor termed crytpo the “camping disease” because those infected had often bathed in or drank infected water in the wilderness. The professor made it a point to blame the raccoons. I remember that well. But, it’s not shocking to hear about crypto in the news this swimming season, because it’s really more common than we realize.

As I mentioned, crypto needs a damp environment to survive. Food and water. We share lots of food and water in the summer season. It lives in lakes, streams, swimming pools, hot tubs, contaminated foods, and the list goes on (just use your imagination).

It only takes a few drops of the contaminated water or bites of contaminated food for the parasite to get into your digestive tract and multiply.

Many who pick up the crypto parasite don’t even know they have it. However, those with weakened immune systems, the young, and the elderly are more prone to severe or life-threatening illness. If illness does occur it may include watery diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea, poor appetite, and sometimes vomiting, fever, and muscle aches. People with crypto parasites will shed them for about two weeks after diarrhea ends so if you suspect you have this illness, please stay out of the pool so you don’t infect others!

Normal levels of chlorine does not kill crypto. And upping the levels of chlorine in the pools can lead to chlorine poisoning. Really, we just need to keep crypto out of pools in the first place.

You can do that by:

  1. NOT going to the pool when sick with diarrhea
  2. encouraging your children not to swallow water
  3. not buying pool toys that encourage swallowing water like cups
  4. enforcing regular bathroom breaks
  5. checking diapers outside of and away from the pool

Crypto plagues water sources and is a major food contaminant in developing countries. Because of this, it’s a major contributor to infant and child illness and fatality.

It doesn’t have to plague our pools this summer. Be smart and courteous and stay home if you’re sick…any kind of sick.

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