While the most common Recreational Water Illnesses (or RWIs) are diarrheal in nature, respiratory infections can also be caused by swimming pool water. The most common respiratory disease caused by swimming pool water is caused by a microscopic germ called Legionella, which leads to Legionnaires’ disease.
Understanding Legionnaires’ Disease Basics
Also referred to as Legionellosis, Legionnaires’ disease is a type of pneumonia. Affecting between 8,000 and 18,000 people in the United States, Legionnaires’ disease is often able to be successfully treated with antibiotics; however, sometimes it ends up being fatal. Those especially at risk for becoming seriously ill as a result of exposure to Legionella include people with weakened immune systems or those who are over age 50, as well as those with chronic lung disease or who smoke.
Identifying Sources of Legionella
While Legionella cannot be transferred directly from one person to another, it is naturally found in water and is particularly common in warm water. Breathing in steam from a contaminated hot tub is one common way to contract Legionnaires’ disease; however, the germ can also be contracted through pools, decorative fountains, cooling towers, and plumbing systems. The reason why warm water poses an especially high risk is that higher water temperatures make maintaining proper disinfectant levels more difficult.
Properly Maintaining Pool or Hot Tub Water
Especially if you have a hot tub or like to keep your pool water on the warmer side, you’ll want to take extra care to ensure that you maintain the proper chemical levels. Be sure to test the chemical levels more often when the pool is being used by more people. If you have a hot tub, be sure to remove the slimy biofilm layer with regular cleaning and scrubbing and replace the hot tub water filter and the water regularly.
If you or a family member is particularly at risk for Leginnaires’ disease, you may want to bring pool test strips with you if you choose to use a public hot tub. (A proper chlorine level is 2-4 ppm, bromine is 4-6 ppm, and the pH should be between 7.2 and 7.8.) If you test the water and find improper levels, be sure to inform the hot tub operator. You could also ask the hot tub operator when the last health inspection was and what the score was as well as how often the levels are typically tested.
Like other RWIs, respiratory infections caused by swimming pool water are due to the presence of chloramines that are created when contaminants combine with the chlorine intended to kill germs in your pool water. When you reduce the incidence of chloramines, you’ll be reducing the risk of Legionnaires’ Disease as well.
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