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The Gross Parasite Found in Swimming Pools

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There’s a growing number of cases of swimmers contracting a tiny parasite called cryptosporidium from swimming pools and other recreational waters, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). How does this parasite spread? Well, it's not coming from anyone peeing in the pool—but that's not necessarily a silver lining.

“Cryptosporidium infections come from public swimming pools, water parks, hot tubs, fountains, lakes, rivers, springs, ponds, or streams that have been contaminated with sewage, or human or animal feces,” explains Amar Safdar, M.D., associate professor and infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone Medical Center. (Brush up on 4 Scary Things That Could Happen in a Pool or Hot Tub.)

There’s been a 200 percent increase of reported cases of people with this parasite between 2004 and 2008, he adds. In fact, a recent report from the CDC found that in just one year (between 2011 and 2012), 90 outbreaks resulted in 1,788 illnesses, 95 hospitalizations, and one death.

An infection mostly comes from swallowing the contaminated water, but you can also contract it from eating food someone prepared with unwashed hands. (Speaking of germs, here's 10 Personal Items You Don't Want to Share.)

So what kind of illnesses are we talking here? The most common result is diarrhea, which, while uncomfortable, isn’t life threatening. (Be warned, though, that these symptoms appear an average of seven days after a splash session, according to the CDC). However, for young children or adults with immune problems, cryptosporidium can cause serious debilitating diseases, Safdar adds.

Protect yourself by being picky about the water you wade into. “Lack of proper pool maintenance is the single most important factor for this parasite to persist,” Safdar says. The key is in the chemical balance, so talk to the maintenance team at your neighborhood pool and be sure they are checking for proper chlorine and pH levels. And if you have kids, check their diapers regularly to be sure they aren’t contributing to the problem.

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