Fear and media headlines about water quality are running high in the UK, but when we researched OSS members in 2022 they logged 1.85 million swims between them all around the world and 207 incidents of sickness that they attributed to water quality. That’s one incidence of sickness for every 9,094 swims.
As the largest organisms in the water, and only briefly in there (compared to a dragonfly nymph for example, that might be there for up to 5 years), we are remarkably robust to less than pure water. 80% of swimmers had never been sick, 10% reported one occasion of feeling ‘a bit iffy’, and a further 10% reported being sick one to four times (within the context of having taken 1434 swims each on average).
If you are worried about water quality where you swim, it may give confidence to know that there are things we can do to reduce our risk of sickness other than – perish the thought, give up swimming (or not take it up in the first place. We are so sad to see people scared off starting swimming). Nothing is without risk, and outdoor swimming is full of risks, such as moving water, cold, and weather. Possible issues with water quality is just one one of many risk factors that you can learn to moderate, and balance against the positives – 94% of those surveyed swim for joy, 84% cherish the immersion in nature, 82% like the freedom and flexibility of the sport and 68% like the benefit of physical fitness.
So with better water quality high on the political and personal agendas, here’s what I and many other swimmers do to reduce risk of illness swimming. What we don’t do, that often, is stop swimming.
Every body of water is different – use these tips and the features below to get to know yours.
If you swim and suffer skin rashes, eye irritation, vomiting, diarrhoea, fever or cold like symptoms and muscle and joint pain go to your doctor or A&E and mention you have swum in an outdoor water body recently. With both Weil’s Disease and Blue Green Algae quick treatment is recommended. Weil’s Disease can take a few weeks to show. See links for further information.
Kate Rew is the author of The Outdoor Swimmers’ Handbook (Rider), which contains more information on Planning a Swim. Available widely internationally and signed in The OSS Shop.