The summer vacation season is upon us. That means fun in the sun and staying cool in the inviting waters of Louisiana's beaches, rivers, lakes and pools. Before jumping in for a refreshing swim, the Louisiana Department of Health reminds everyone to be safe and cautious. A fun and exciting day on the water can quickly turn tragic, and people can become sick if they don't know the risks and take precautions.

"We know people will be venturing into our state's waterways more and more in the coming months, so we advise them to be careful and exercise health precautions," Department of Health Secretary Kathy Kliebert said. "We certainly do not mean to discourage people from enjoying water activities, but we want them to understand the potential risks involved."

The Department issues a "Swim at your Own Risk" advisory each year to coincide with the end of the school year and the beginning of summer.

The germs, bacteria and parasites in the State's natural waterways, such as rivers, lakes, marshes and the Gulf of Mexico can make you sick and sometimes may be fatal. 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.

"Most people can swim and enjoy the water without any problems or concerns," said State Health Officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry. "But, contaminates can find their way into all waterways, so there is always a slight level of risk for infections." Dr. Guidry also says it's not a good idea to ingest the water or swim if you have cuts or open wounds.

If not chlorinated, treated or maintained, in ground and treated pools are also at risk of harboring microorganisms. Owners should monitor their pools to ensure proper chlorine and chemical levels. Residents who use portable blow up pools and Slip 'N Slides are reminded to dump the water each day and refill them with fresh water before using it again.

Residents should also be mindful of the risk of drowning. Drowning is the second leading cause of death in America for children ages 1 to 14 years, and the fifth leading cause for people of all ages. Two children drown every day.  Last year, 60 people drowned in Louisiana. More than 3,800 people nationwide drowned each year between 2005 and 2009.

Adults 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.
  • You should never dive into water until you are 100 percent certain it is deep enough. Shallow water, underwater logs, big rocks or other debris are all dangerous when you are diving into the Gulf, rivers, lakes or swimming holes. Diving head first can cause serious injury

Beach Water Testing

The LDH Beach Monitoring Program monitors quality for coastal waters in conjunction with state and local partners May 1 - October 31. The program tests water at 24 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 Constance Beach, Cypremort Point, Fontainebleau and Grand Isle state parks, Holly Beach, Rutherford, Martin, Long Beach (Dung), Little Florida, Gulf Breeze, Grand Isle, Elmer's Island, North and South beaches.

LDH collects water samples weekly from beach sites and analyzes them for high levels of two bacterial indicators, fecal coliform & enterococci. 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.

Enjoy the water, but remember, being smart and aware helps ensure that you and your family stay safe this summer.