School is over. The weather is warm and will be sweltering soon. Nothing is quite as refreshing to children as an afternoon spent in the water - whether it is in a backyard or community pool, at a water park, at one of our nearby lakes or at the beach while on a family vacation.
Swimming is a terrific way to stay active and healthy. As with any sport, there are some general precautions you should take to ensure safety.
Be sure to liberally apply and reapply sunscreen to prevent serious sunburns. Put on broad spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 15 before you go outside, even on slightly cloudy days. Get help for hard-to-reach places like your back. Most sunscreen products work by absorbing, reflecting or scattering sunlight. They contain chemicals that interact with the skin to protect it from UV rays. All products do not have the same ingredients. If your skin reacts badly to one product, try another one.
My children have each had skin reactions to one brand of sunscreen or another. It’s been a challenge finding a product that the whole family can use so we keep multiple types in our towel bag. Sunscreens are assigned a sun protection factor (SPF) number that rates their effectiveness in blocking UV rays. Higher numbers indicate more protection. You should use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 15.
No matter what SPF, all sunscreen protection wears off. Put it on again if you stay out in the sun for more than two hours and after swimming, sweating or toweling off. I didn’t realize this until recently, but most sunscreens have a printed expiration date. Any sunscreen without an expiration date has a shelf life of no more than three years. The shelf life of all sunscreens is shortened if the bottle is exposed to hot temperatures (like in your hot car in the summer).
According to the Centers for Disease Control, drownings are a leading cause of injury death for young children ages 1 to 14, and three children die every day because of drowning. In fact, drowning kills more children ages 1 to 4 than anything else except birth defects. Make sure kids wear life jackets in and around natural bodies of water, such as lakes or the ocean, even if they know how to swim. Life jackets and flotation devices can be used in and around pools for weaker swimmers, too. But these flotation devices are no substitute for a watchful adult eye.
When I was growing up, we all knew we should avoid the kiddie pool at all costs and swim swiftly away if we suddenly felt a “warm spot” in the water of the regular pool. Parents should remind their kids not to swallow the water. Whether it’s the pool or the lake, there are tiny microbes everywhere that can cause unintended diseases.
But there’s chlorine in the pool; isn’t it supposed to keep things clean? Despite all the chlorine in the pool, you can still get sick. According to the CDC, most swimming-related outbreaks are caused by diarrheal germs like Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Shigella, norovirus, and E. Coli O157:H7. Cryptosporidium outbreaks linked to swimming are increasing, and are hard to control because the germ is not easily killed by chlorine.
It’s a no-brainer, but parents should know that they should not allow their kids to swim if they are sick with diarrhea. Just one diarrheal incident in the water can release millions of germs. If someone swallows a mouthful of the water, it can cause diarrhea lasting up to three weeks. Parents should also take their kids on bathroom breaks and check diapers and change them in a bathroom, not poolside, to keep germs away from the pool. The allure of cool water on a hot sunny day is a universal one. Just try to practice basic water safety, hygiene, and etiquette so we can all enjoy our summer months ahead.
Dr. Li-Yu Mitchell is a mother of three, a family physician and wound-care specialist, president of the Smith County Medical Society, a board member of Northeast Texas Public Health District and delegate for the Rose Chapter of the Texas Academy of Family Physicians.