The hot and humid weekends are here, and as we move into summer, Louisiana families are already enjoying pools, lakes, rivers and beaches to cool off and enjoy fun in the sun. Swimming and water sports provide a great way to get exercise in the summer months, but things can quickly turn tragic and people can become sick if they don't know the risks and take precautions. Extended sun exposure without sunscreen can also be damaging or deadly.

Drowning is the leading cause of death in America for young children ages one to four. Three children drown every day.  The number of people who drown in Louisiana waters or swimming pools yearly has gone from 54 in 2006 to 72 in 2010. More than 3,800 people nationwide drowned each year between 2005 and 2009.

However, when practiced safely, swimming provides both children and adults with a full-body aerobic workout that burns calories quickly. According to the Mayo Clinic, one hour of swimming laps can burn 511 calories for a 160-lb. person, 637 calories for a 200-lb. person and 763 calories for a 240-lb. person.

"Spending time in the water is a way of life in Louisiana, but families should take the necessary precautions to enjoy their summer safely," said Department of Health Secretary Bruce D. Greenstein. "I encourage everyone get to get out and take advantage of the exercise opportunities provided by swimming pools and our state's natural waterways. Just follow a few simple steps to keep you and your family safe."

Steps to Take

LDH reminds adults that they can protect themselves and children and reduce the risk of drowning by taking the following precautions:

  • Always have adult supervision when people are in or around the water. This is especially important for children and people who have seizure disorders or other medical conditions that could cause them to lose consciousness.
  • Never swim alone. Always swim with a buddy.
  • Take swimming lessons.
  • Learn CPR.
  • Do not use air-filled or foam toys in place of life jackets.
  • Use alcohol responsibly around water, and avoid its use entirely when supervising children.
  • Teach children to never run, push or jump on others around water.
  • Keep a phone near the pool or other water body, along with rescue equipment, such as a life preserver and a shepherd's hook -- a long pole with a hook at the end swimmers can grab to be pulled out of the water if in distress.
  • Ensure that pools are surrounded by a fence at least four feet high. Pool gates should self-close and self-latch at a height small children can't reach.

Drowning isn't the only concern when diving into Louisiana's natural waterways. Residents should also be cautious about water quality conditions that could cause illness.

Microscopic germs and bacteria are present in the state's natural waterways, such as rivers and lakes. Some microorganisms occur naturally, and others come from human and animal waste. These materials can enter water from sewage overflows, polluted storm water runoff, sewage treatment plant malfunctions, urban and rural runoff after rainfall, boating wastes, malfunctioning individual sewage treatment systems and agricultural runoff.

Dr. Jimmy Guidry, Louisiana State Health Officer, says the advisory includes valuable information that residents should be aware of before they dive in, particularly after a heavy rain.

"Rain water washes germ and bacteria contaminants into lakes and rivers, and that is when the risk is the highest," says Dr. Guidry. "Heavy rain also raises water levels, hiding debris that could cause injuries and drowning."

Beach Water Testing

The LDH Beach Monitoring Program monitors quality for coastal waters in conjunction with the Department of Environmental Quality, the Louisiana Office of State Parks, Cameron Parish Police Jury, the Town of Grand Isle and Lafourche Parish Police Jury, May 1 - October 31. The program tests water at 26 beach sites along the Louisiana coast to determine whether the water quality meets the federal Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act of 2000. The monitoring locations include Cypremort Point, Fontainebleau and Grand Isle state parks, Fourchon, Holly Beach, Rutherford, Martin, Long Beach (Dung), Little Florida, Gulf Breeze, Grand Isle, Elmer's Island, Constance, North and South beaches.

LDH collects water samples weekly from beach sites and analyzes them to see if high levels of bacteria or other contaminants are present. Signs posted at the beaches change each week to reflect the current water quality status at that location. That information is also posted on the LDH Beach Monitoring webpage.

People who ingest waterborne bacteria or contaminants can become ill with diarrhea, sore throat, stomach cramps or vomiting. Children, the elderly and people who have weakened immune systems are at greater risk of becoming sick. Swimmers can consume bacteria or contaminants in the water through their mouths, noses and ears, as well as through open cuts and wounds. People should take extra precautions against swallowing water or when submerging their heads underwater, as this increases the risk of ingesting bacteria.

More Safety Steps

There are several additional precautions people should take to reduce their risk of illness or injury while swimming:

  • Do not swim near a drainage pipe or in a ditch, or near runoff or littered areas.
  • Do not swim in areas that have posted warnings against swimming there.
  • Avoid swimming after heavy rains.
  • Avoid ingesting or swallowing the water.
  • Minimize dunking your head underwater when swimming.
  • Avoid swimming with an open cut or wound.
  • Shower or bathe immediately after swimming in a public waterway.

Protecting Your Skin

Take precautions against sun exposure every day of the year, especially during midday hours (10:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.), when UV rays are strongest and do the most damage. UV rays can reach you on cloudy days, and can reflect off of surfaces like water, cement, sand, and snow.

  • Seek shade, especially during midday hours.
  • Cover up with clothing to protect exposed skin.
  • Wear a hat with a wide brim to shade the face, head, ears, and neck.
  • Wear sunglasses that wrap around and block as close to 100% of both UVA and UVB rays as possible.
  • Put on sunscreen with broad spectrum (UVA and UVB) protection and sun protective factor (SPF) 15 or higher.
  • Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps. The UV rays from them are as dangerous as the UV rays from the sun.

This is definitely the time of year to enjoy the water, but being smart and aware helps ensure that you and your family stay safe during the summer.