Updated 23 December 2014

Are public swimming pools unhygienic?

Swimming is great for exercise and physical therapy, but if you don’t have the luxury of a pool at home you may have wondered, as this reader did: just how hygienic is that local municipal or gym "communal bath"?

Olivia Rose-Innes is Health24’s EnviroHealth Editor. Read more of her columns and articles or post a question to her expert forum.

"After a year of operations, due to burst appendix and hernia, my doctor suggested some gentle swimming to stretch the body.

"I joined a small club and forced myself to slowly swim in the warm water. But this past month the gym has taken in classes and classes of toddlers from nearby nursery schools, and I feel I am swimming in kids urine!

Am I being silly? Does the chlorine kill the urine? I just have not been able to get in the water as it all seems so not clean."

- Reader query from the EnviroHealth Forum

What lurks beneath the sparkling surface?

Swimming strengthens the body while the water buoys it up and protects against exercise-related injury, making it a popular and frequently recommended therapy for people recovering from an injury, operation or chronic illness.

Just about any pool will contain pollutants, although these should be minimal if the pool is well maintained, as required by law.

If your immune system is compromised, as may be the case if you've been ill or recently had surgery, you are more vulnerable to infection by any micro-organisms in the water.

The real nasty: human waste

- Find out when children’s swimming classes are held so that you can avoid them if possible.
- Don’t swallow the pool water, keep your eyes closed underwater, and have a shower immediately after swimming.
- Don't swim if you have any open cuts or sores.
- Don’t spend longer in the pool than you need to do your exercises.
-  If you notice any worrisome symptoms, such as rash, diarrhoea or eye irritation, then definitely stop using the pool until you’ve consulted your doctor.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor. @ORoseInn

Image: Child at pool edge: Shutterstock.


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