All Of Your Pool Safety Questions, Answered

Read this before making a splash.

Is there anything more inviting on a hot summer day than a sparkling pool or spraying ocean? Swimming is a good way to stay cool, get some low-impact exercise and enjoy the summer season, whether you’re hitting up the local beach, pool or lake. But, as with any physical activity, it requires some basic safety precautions and can certainly result in injury.

More than 3,500 people died from a drowning incident from 2005 to 2014. Many non-fatal cases experienced devastating brain injury, such as memory problems, learning disabilities and even a vegetative state, as a result.

“Obviously, brain injury by drowning is our utmost concern,” says Julie Gilchrist, a pediatrician and medical epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Injury Center. “It’s so preventable and unfortunately, hospital care doesn’t alter the outcome. There’s not a lot we’re able to do for brain injury. That’s why prevention is so so important.”

Gilchrist recommends early swimming lessons so that children and adults alike have this important skill. Additionally, for children, supervision in all swim areas is essential. And, when a pool is not in use, make sure there are barriers to access: gates around pools, locks on doors and even alarms.

For adults, drownings are much more common on natural bodies of water rather than pools. And men are far more likely to drown than women, likely because they’re more apt to take on risky activities, according to Gilchrist, and are also far more likely to swim under the influence of alcohol and overestimate their swimming endurance and abilities.

But beyond drowning, there are a number of health complaints that can result in a day spent in the emergency room, rather than the water — and misconceptions surrounding what causes them. To make sure your summer swim experience is nothing but good and good for you, we’ve compiled answers to some other common questions. Have fun!

What's Swimmer's Ear Anyway?
This condition can refer to inflammation or infection of either the outer ear or the outer ear canal -- most often, it is simply an infection caused by swimming in contaminated water. Many bacteria, such as pseudomonas, can lead to an ear infection and are prevalent in water, according to the National Institutes of Health website. But swimmer's ear can also be caused by irritation to the layer of skin lining your ear canal -- most often caused by putting fingers, cotton swabs or something else too far into the ear canal. Ear pain, discharge from the ear (particularly if it is a strange color, thick like pus or foul smelling) or an itching sensation in the ear canal are all symptoms of swimmer's ear. Some people may even experience temporary hearing loss. As with any bacterial infection, oral antibiotics are the most common form of treatment. If the swimmer's ear is an inflammation or irritation rather than an infection, corticosteroids are the most common treatment, according to the NIH. Aside from steering clear of polluted water, you can avoid swimmer's ear by using earplugs, thoroughly drying your ears after a swim or even applying an alcohol-vinegar solution to the ears after a swim to prevent bacterial growth.
Will I Really Cramp After Eating?
This common wisdom was dismissed by many in the medical and safety communities. Waiting 30 minutes to an hour after eating to hop in the pool? Folklore. In fact, a 2005 New York Times article called it "yet another old wives' tale that should be laid to rest." The theory behind the precaution is that blood flow to the stomach increases after eating, which draws it away from muscles, causing immobilizing cramps that can cause drowning. But according to a 2011 study in the journal Medicine, Science and the Law, those who swim on a full stomach really dohave a higher drowning risk. Researcher's from Tokyo Women's Medical University looked at data from 536 autopsies between April 2000 and December 2007. They split the autopsies into two categories: those in which solid food was visible in the stomach (a sign that a person had eaten recently) and those without any solid food. Among the 34 cases in which the deceased showed signs of having eaten recently, 79 percent had died of accidental drowning. What's more, it went both ways: nearly 80 percent of those who drowned accidentally had visible food residues in the stomach. These researchers theorized that the blood flow to the stomach following eating, in combination with the swim, caused light-headedness that made some people lose consciousness.
Is It That Bad To Pee In The Pool?
Yes. While holding it until you find a toilet seems like a pretty basic courtesy, surveys consistently show that more of us are relieving ourselves in the pool. In fact, reported CNN, 17 percent of adults admitted to peeing in the pool -- including one rather famous swimmer, Michael Phelps. The problem with peeing in the pool is that the nitrogen in urine combines with the sanitizing chlorine to form a different chemical, chloramine. That does two things, according to Michele Hlavsa, epidemiologist and chief of Healthy Swimming and Waterborne Disease Prevention at the CDC. First, it ties up the chlorine, so it isn't doing its job of killing common pathogens like E. coli, salmonella and others. Secondly, it is a major irritant -- if you've experienced respiratory irritation, coughing or stinging red eyes, it could be caused by chloramines. Sweat and personal care products also contain nitrogen, and so rinsing off in a shower before getting into the pool is a good way to prevent creating chloramines. And how can you tell if urine's present? You don't need a special forensics team. According to Hlavsa, if the pool has a strong chemical smell, that's chloramine -- not chlorine. "A healthy pool doesn't smell," she says. But while we're on the subject of bathroom behavior, one in five adults admits to swimming while suffering from diarrhea. That's problematic because one common bacterium that causes diarrhea -- chryptospiridium -- is very chlorine tolerant, surviving up to ten days in a well chlorinated pool. "We overestimate what chlorine can kill, but it takes time for chlorine to disinfect -- there's a window of opportunity with each pathogen."
Why Are My Eyes Irritated?
If you're in a pool, you may be having a bout of "chemical conjunctivitis" -- a type of irritation caused by the chemicals used in many pools to keep things sanitized. You may be grateful for the dose of chlorine in the local watering hole (see previous slide), but it can also lead to irritation if administered with a heavy hand. On the flip side, under chlorinating can lead to eye irritation and infection, too, thanks to water-loving bacteria, according to the CDC. Follow their chlorinating guidelines to ensure an optimal pH level, which helps the chlorine work properly to sanitize the water, for your eyes -- and the rest of you.
Can I Get Burned If I'm Underwater?
You absolutely can. "Sun rays penetrate the water surface, so it's really important to wear a long-lasting sunblock," says Gilchrist. As far as sun exposure goes, the real concern is the reflective surface of the water, which amplifies the sun's rays and can cause a burn for swimmers and boaters alike. For that reason, it's important to be especially vigilant about applying sunscreen and even wearing sunglasses.

A previous version of this article appeared in July 2012.