Protect Yourself: E. coli

Children are more susceptible to waterborne illnesses.

Recreational water illnesses are caused by bacteria and other pathogens found in untreated water. They are spread by swallowing water, breathing in water spray, or coming into contact with contaminated water. Swimming pools and hot tubs are treated with chemicals to kill bacteria, but most other recreational waters, including streams running through popular parks, decorative fountains, or small municipal ponds, are untreated and can pose health risks.

E. coli in Recreational Waters

E. coli is just one of many common pathogens found in untreated waters. While these bacteria are often present in recreational waters, most strains are not dangerous to people. Certain types of E. coli can cause diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps, urinary tract infections, and anemia. Most infections are very mild, but others are severe or even life-threatening. Children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems are most likely to develop illnesses or infections after swimming in contaminated water. E. coli O157:H7, the strain of E. coli most commonly associated with contaminated meats and vegetables, can cause serious and sometimes fatal illness if transmitted through swimming and ingestion of contaminated water.

E. coli is an “indicator organism” for fecal contamination in water bodies. Indicator organisms generally do not cause illness themselves but have characteristics that make them good indicators of the presence of harmful pathogens in the water. The best way to reduce potential health risks is to assume all surface waters contain some E. coli regardless of whether they are monitored or an advisory is issued. Parasites and pathogens besides E. coli, such as Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Shigella, and norovirus, can also be present in recreational waters.

How to Stay Healthy

Follow these tips to stay safe and healthy when recreating in Utah waters:

  • Don’t swallow the water.
  • Make sure to wash hands if they were in contact with the water before touching the mouth or eyes. The single most effective way to prevent the person-to-person spread of E. coli is careful hand washing.
  • Don’t swim in discolored, odorous, foamy, or scummy water.
  • Avoid swimming within 48 hours of a major storm.
  • Avoid swimming with open cuts or wounds.
  • Wash and cook fish thoroughly and wash hands after handling fish or lake water.

Help protect the water from fecal contamination:

  • Don’t swim in the water with diarrhea or within two weeks of having diarrhea.
  • Take children for frequent bathroom breaks and diaper changes. Don’t change diapers near the water.
  • Don’t rinse children off in the swimming area.
  • Dispose of diapers properly away from the water.
  • Pick up dog waste and dispose of it properly.

Contact the Utah Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222, Utah Department of Health (801) 538-6191, or a physician if experiencing a gastrointestinal illness that may be related to recreating in untreated surface water.