Recreational Waterborne Illnesses: Recognition, Treatment, and Prevention

Am Fam Physician. 2017 May 1;95(9):554-560.


Illness after recreational water activities can be caused by a variety of agents, including bacteria, viruses, parasites, algae, and even chlorine gas. These illnesses are more common in summer. Waterborne illnesses are underreported because most recreational activity occurs in unsupervised venues or on private property, and participants tend to disperse before illness occurs. Symptoms of waterborne illness are primarily gastrointestinal, but upper respiratory and skin manifestations also occur. Gastrointestinal symptoms are usually self-limited, and supportive treatment may be all that is necessary. However, some infections can cause significant morbidity and mortality. Cryptosporidium and Giardia intestinalis are the most common cause of gastrointestinal illness and have partial chlorine resistance. Respiratory infections are typically mild and self-limited. However, if legionnaires' disease develops and is unrecognized, mortality may be as high as 10%. Cellulitis caused by Vibrio vulnificus can result in serious illness, amputation, and death. Early and appropriate antibiotic treatment is important. Chronically ill and immunocompromised persons are at high risk of infection and should be counseled accordingly.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Gastrointestinal Diseases / etiology
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases / microbiology
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases / parasitology
  • Humans
  • Leptospirosis / etiology
  • Recreation
  • Respiratory Tract Diseases / etiology
  • Respiratory Tract Diseases / microbiology
  • Skin Diseases / etiology
  • Skin Diseases / microbiology
  • Waterborne Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Waterborne Diseases / prevention & control
  • Waterborne Diseases / therapy