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Ben Singson: Surviving summer: Enjoy the cool waters, but be mindful of potential risks

Jacksonville Journal-Courier - 6/16/2024

Jun. 14—Summer is here, with many families already starting to beat the heat in pools, lakes and other swimming spots.

But safety officials urge that the water be enjoyed responsibly.

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Other stories in the Surviving Summer package:

NEWS: Groups hope to fill hunger void that accompanies summer break

FRIENDS & FAMILY: Activities abound to entertain, educate children and families

HOME & LIFE: Who's watching the children? Summer can complicate options

A May study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that drowning deaths were on the rise after being on the decline for years prior. Each year from 2020 to 2022, over 4,500 people died from drowning, 500 more than in 2019. Those who drowned were typically either children aged 1-4 or adults 65 years old or older.

In Illinois, 20 children lost their lives to accidental drowning in 2023, eight of them in pools, four in lakes, two in ponds and one at a water park, according to Illinois Department of Public Healh records. Thirteen of the children were age 5 or younger, including six of the children who drowned in pools.

Elias "Bubba" Trace, emergency physician and medical director for Jacksonville Memorial Hospital's emergency department, said that on an anecdotal level, he had not seen the number of drowning-related injuries in the area rise in recent years. The hospital usually receives a handful each year which are typically concentrated in the summer, he said.

"Summer is notoriously 'trauma season'," Trace said. "In May, when the weather starts getting warm, we see increases in all kinds of accidents. Lawn-mowing accidents, yard-related, tree-related, automobile-related — motorcycles especially — and then boating-related (accidents). That continues through October."

Safe Kids Worldwide says at least one person should be designated as backyard lifeguard when the pool is in use. This person should always direct focus on the pool, counting swimmers and keeping track of who enters and leaves the pool.

Children and adults may be swept up in fun and engage in potentially dangerous behaviors. Pool users should not be allowed to run around the perimeter of an inground pool, as the cement can get slippery when wet and lead to falls that can cause injuries.

The Good Housekeeping Research Institute found that inflatable pool toys are especially dangerous. Such toys can flip easily, putting children at risk for injury (from striking the sides of the pool) or drowning (especially if the children were ejected into deep water). Inflatables also can prevent access to the surface of the water for submerged swimmers.

Danielle Schnake, aquatics director and head swim coach of Bob Freesen YMCA, said she has heard about incidents being on the rise at waters not open to the public, such as backyard swimming pools.

In her experience, Schnake said that people who get injured are usually inexperienced swimmers or swimmers who hit their head on the bottom or side of a pool, rendering themselves unconscious.

"Someone who you think is an experienced swimmer can suddenly get into a dangerous situation if that were to happen," she said.

The American Red Cross advises those swimming in bodies of water like lakes and ponds to be cognizant of the hazards. Swimming in bodies of water requires different skills than in a pool. Fast-moving currents and drop-offs that unexpectedly change water depths are some concerns.

It also might come with limited visibility and make it challenging to see rocks and debris.

"Swimming is a favorite summer pastime — one that provides fun and health benefits for Illinoisans of all ages," Illinois Department of Public Health Director Sameer Vohra said. "However, unsafe swimming can be dangerous, whether it is in a swimming pool or in natural bodies of water like rivers or lakes. I encourage all Illinois residents — and especially those responsible for young children — to follow safe swimming practices to prevent drowning. One of those critical practices is encouraging swimming lessons for children. I ask all parents of young children to seek opportunities in their communities to build this critical life-saving skill."

Trace said that water injury victims tend to skew young, with young children being "especially vulnerable to trauma and especially vulnerable to drownings." Young adults aged 20-40 who have been drinking alcohol were also prone to injuries, he said.

Certain behaviors were more conducive to water injuries as well. For Schnake, the most common unsafe action she saw was children running on the pool deck, which could lead to scraped knees or head injuries. She said she has also noticed an uptick in underwater breath-holding contests as of late.

"A lot of kids like to do that," Schnake said, "and then they just get pushed too far and then lose all the oxygen that they have while they're underwater."

Trace advised people to not drink while they were out on the water, whether swimming or driving a boat, as "about 50% of (these accidents) are completely avoidable."

Both of them cautioned against swimming alone, which Trace said is "extremely dangerous." Children swimming should always have a "responsible, sober adult" who can keep an eye on them, he said.

"Don't even leave them alone in the pool for even minutes," Trace said. "That's when most accidents tend to happen."

Trace said that swimming alone is risky even for adults, something that Schnake concurred with. The YMCA always makes sure to have a lifeguard on duty when its pool is open, she said.

"Even if one person would be coming to lap swim, they wouldn't be alone," Schnake said.

Drowning victims could be spotted by the panicked look on their face and in their eyes, Schnake said. Other possible signs of drowning included active struggling and remaining underwater for an extended period of time, Trace said.

"If a person swimming is failing to bring their head above water or they're not moving," he said, "that would be very alarming and that person needs to be basically pulled out of the water and checked on immediately."

If a bystander spots someone drowning in the water, the first step to helping them is to get them onto dry land. If they are actively drowning, Schnake said to use a nearby object, such as a length of wood, to have the victim grab on and pull them out of the water. She did not necessarily recommend jumping into the water without some form of lifeguard training, though.

"Of course, if that is your first instinct to try and save a life, then you can definitely do that," Schnake said.

Once the victim was on land, Trace said to call for help if they had not done so already. After that, he said to check if they are breathing or they have a pulse and to begin chest compressions while waiting for medical assistance to arrive.

"No one can save someone's life on their own," Trace said. There's too many dangers, too many risk factors and time is of the essence."

Vohra said there's also a risk of other health issues related to swimming, such as Crypto (short for Cryptosporidium). The gastro-intestinal illness causes diarrhea and is the leading cause of outbreaks linked to pools and water parks. Crypto can survive in a chlorinated pool for more than one week. Other germs that can cause illness include Giardia, norovirus, Shigella, Legionnaire's Disease and E. coli.

Swimming in lakes and other natural bodies of water comes with a unique set of risks such as amoeba and algae. To reduce the chance of illness, limit the amount of water up your nose by holding your nose or using nose clips when diving or water skiing. Avoid putting your head underwater and don't stir up mud and scum while swimming in warm freshwater areas. If you see that the beach is closed, stay out of it. Don't swim, water ski, or boat in areas where the water is discolored or where you see foam, scum, or mats of algae on the water's surface.

When it comes to boating, Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Illinois Conservation Police are reminding the boaters to practice safe boating by wearing life jackets and only operating a boat while sober. Jet skis and other personal watercraft also pose a risk to swimmers and their operators and should never be used while under the influence.

The state health department licenses and regulates swimming facilities in Illinois. The state's 3,200 swimming facilities are required to meet water quality and safety standards, including engineering design standards that apply to pools, spas, beaches, water supplies, bather preparation areas, and water treatment systems.

Hitting the beach

Public beaches in west-central Illinois:

Morgan County

Illi-wiki-up Campground

Lake JacksonvillePioneer Point Campers Club

Sangamon County

Blue Ridge Club

Jersey County

Piasa Lake

Pike County

Lake Leo-Mississippi Valley Christian Camp

Pine LakeYogi Bear'sJellyStone Pine Lakes Camping Resort

Macoupin County

Camp Bunn

Lake Carlinville

Lake GillespieGillespie City Lakes

Lake Williamson Christian Center

Lazy Day PondMidwest RV LLC

RELATED: Download the pool safely app. It includes four fun games to help kids learn how to stay safer around pools and spas. It's available in the Apple Store or through Google Play.

RELATED: To check the status of Illinois beaches, including closures, advisories and test results checking the online Illinois Beach Guard System.

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