E. coli in Swimming Water: It Can Be Deadly 

E. coli in Swimming Water: It Can Be Deadly 

For some people like young children and the elderly, E. coli contamination can lead to life-threatening kidney damage.

Most of the attention regarding the dangers of swimming in summer revolve around drowning. Sadly, each year up to about 4,000 people drown in the US. It’s a tragedy that can happen in as little as 20 seconds. While drowning is obviously an extremely serious matter, what isn’t talked about as much is the invisible danger that can lurk within your swimming water. E. coli is a form of bacteria and exposure to it can cause you to fall sick. It can even cause permanent damage to your organs and be deadly.  

Here’s a look at how E. coli can end up in your swimming water, who is most at risk, and how you can avoid it. 

Where Does E. coli Come From?

E. coli (Escherichia) is a type of bacteria that lives in healthy animals and people. It’s found in your intestines and it usually doesn’t cause much trouble. A certain strain of E. coli can make you very sick, however. It gets into swimming water when the stool (poo) from animals and people contaminate the water. When this contamination gets into streams, rivers, and surface water, it can contaminate the swimming water in a lake or river. (You can also get sick from E. coli found in contaminated food, or from a person who is sick with E. coli). 

People can get very sick by swallowing this bacteria-laden water.

Are Swimming Waters Tested?

Many highly-frequented natural, fresh water swimming areas have their water tested. Sometimes this is daily. Looking to stay safe? Your best practice is to check for signs and flags that indicate the water is safe. If you don’t see any, ask someone who might know if it is tested, and search online for water quality reports before jumping in. It’s definitely better to be safe than sorry.

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Some swimming areas are tested daily and others much less frequently making some testing results unreliable for immediate use. If there has recently been a big rainfall, it’s best to stay out of the water. This is a time when runoff from water on land can easily contaminate the swimming area. Rural areas are particularly susceptible to E. coli contamination. 

How Serious Can It Be?

Many people who suffer from a bout of E. coli contamination get better within 5 to 10 days. In some people, especially young children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems, the damage can be much more severe. 

Generally speaking, the symptoms of an E. coli infection include mild to moderate diarrhea, severe bloody diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and stomach cramping. The infection can also cause pain and tenderness in your abdominal area. 

In severe cases, the infection can cause a life-threatening situation. The infection can lead to kidney failure. It’s called hemolytic uremic syndrome. This condition happens when the small blood vessels in your kidneys become so inflamed that blood clots form within. This messes up the filtration system of the kidneys and causes them to fail. In serious cases, especially in young children,  this can result in a coma, sometimes for months on end, or death. Blood transfusions, medicine and kidney dialysis are needed. Some patients end up requiring a kidney transplant. 


Most people who go swimming do not become infected with E. coli. It can happen though, and precautions should be taken. If you are planning on swimming in a lake this summer, check out the water testing and how often it’s done. Of course, you can get an E. coli infection from your local pool as well, but this is more unlikely as the water is chlorinated.

Don’t go in water you don’t know about. Consider wading instead of swimming, particularly with young children. Do not let them swallow the water. If they aren’t old enough to not do this, stay out and stay safe. 

photo credits: Rose Makin/Shutterstock.com

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