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Healthy Swimming Monday

Published

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, swimming is the third most popular sports activity in the United States, and for good reason, too. A prospective 32-year study of over 40,000 men found that swimmers had approximately half the mortality risk of non-swimmers, including sedentary people, walkers and runners. Other studies show that water-based exercise improves mood and health-related quality of life, while decreasing joint and muscle pain.

Nevertheless, swimming does come with health concerns. Recreational water illnesses are infections that are spread through swallowing, breathing in or coming in contact with germs from contaminated water in pools, hot tubs, water parks and more. One of the most common recreational water illnesses that affects swimmers of all ages is swimmer's ear, or otitis external. This year, swimmer's ear has been chosen as the theme of National Recreational Water Illness and Injury Prevention Week, observed May 23-29.

Swimmer's ear involves an infection of the outer ear canal, causing pain, itchiness, tenderness and inflammation in the ear. When contaminated water, most often with the germ Pseudomonas, stays in direct contact with the ear canal for a long time, bacteria have an ideal environment in which to grow and multiply. Antibiotics are usually required to treat the infection once it begins.

Although complications due to swimmer's ear are rarely severe, the infection can be very painful and make swimming seem less desirable. Fortunately, swimmer's ear can be prevented by following a few simple precautionary steps.

  • Thoroughly dry your ears after swimming. If needed, use alcohol-based ear drops (or pour 1 tsp. of a solution made from 1 part vinegar to 1 part alcohol into each ear) to fully soak up the water.
  • Do not put cotton swabs, Q-tips or fingers deep into your ears. These can irritate, scratch, or put small holes into the ear canal, in which bacteria can grow and cause infection.
  • Avoid swimming in water with high bacterial or pollution counts.
  • If you own a pool or hot tub, use pool test strips to ensure adequate disinfectant and pH levels. Pools should have chlorine levels between 1-3 ppm, hot tubs should have chlorine or bromine levels between 2-5 ppm, and both pools and hot tubs should have pH levels between 7.2-7.8.
  • If you have recently had an ear infection or surgery, be sure to get your doctor's permission before you swim again and before using ear drops.

Rita Colwell, PhD, professor in the Johns Hopkins Center for Water and Health, also strongly advises against swimming in the Chesapeake Bay or other water bodies (lakes and ponds) if you have any open cuts or wounds as a way to prevent other water-based infections.

For more information on the health benefits of swimming or on Recreational Water Illness and Injury Prevention Week, visit http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/health_benefits_water_exercise.html and http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/rwi/rwi-prevention-week/. To learn more about swimmer's ear, go to: http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/rwi/illnesses/swimmers-ear.html or http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/swimmers-ear/DS00473.