Education, Wellness / Self-Care

What are Waterborne Diseases? Are they as dangerous as COVID?

Avoid these if you can.

words by: Natasha Marsh
Sep 3, 2022

As if there were not enough viruses or devastating news to worry about, waterborne diseases decided to show up. Did you know that your go-to summer activities — spending a day at the beach, laying outside on a boat, enjoying a cold beer with friends, high-diving off of an Olympic-sized pool — could potentially expose you to a disease?


You might recall the sign above jacuzzi spas at public pools that states “any person who is experiencing diarrhea in the last 14 days should not enter.” I’ve always seen this sign and looked past it, never really wondering why it existed. But if diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, fever, and other symptoms contract inside water, it could be contagious.


According to the Center for Disease Control (yes, the same CDC that releases the most confusing things about COVID), an alarming 7.2 million Americans get sick every year from waterborne diseases. This is even after the U.S. has been declared as the safest place to drink water.


So, since this is so common, it would be a good idea to understand what exactly waterborne diseases are and how you can protect yourself from them.


What are waterborne diseases?

Essentially, water-related illnesses are caused by inhaling, ingesting, or making contact with contagious contaminants inside water. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, illnesses can be mild to severe. People often experience stomach pain, muscle cramps, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, respiratory issues, and eye irritation.


Although diseases can be spread by people using water, climate change and global warming are also main causes of the spread. Think about hurricanes, tornadoes, or landslides: They can interrupt sanitation systems, furthering the risk of waterborne disease. Some waterborne diseases enjoy warm water, so you won’t find them all over the world, but in concentrated places where the water is naturally warm.


Symptoms and what to do

The CDC also states that in the U.S. alone, 17 waterborne pathogens infected 7.15 million people in 2014. That’s 601,000 ER visits, 118,000 hospitalizations, and 6,300 deaths. A few common ones include swimmer’s ear (aka otitis externa), norovirus (causing vomiting and diarrhea — also known as the traveler’s virus), and giardiasis (causes stomach pain and diarrhea).


These viruses are tricky to treat once you contact one; it’ll just have to run its course. However, it is important to understand how to avoid one. If you contact the virus via contaminated water, you will need to be wary of how and where you ingested it, as well as being cautious of the water getting up your nose (for example, when you flip into a pool) or breathing it in (aka when you are walking along the beach).


For that reason, you should stick to pools that you know are well managed. Meaning, don’t even think of going into dirty or murky water. Secondly, don’t drink unknown water, like water in lakes, rivers, pools, hot tubs, or water parks. If you accidentally drink some while doing a cool trick or getting swept by waves, do your best to spit it out.


If you do, however, find yourself with a waterborne disease and it gets really bad, opt for antibiotics, and see your doctor if it worsens.


If your stomach turns up in knots from an unfortunate infection, keep these teas around to help you get through it.