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How to protect your family from four common ailments of swimming

Posted June 30

Swimming is one of the best things you can do for your body. It's a high-octane calorie burner, easy on the joints, and exercises all the major muscle groups while challenging the lungs.

But like all physical activities, swimming also carries risks, most notable the risk of drowning. About 10 Americans drown every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Compared to drowning, the other health risks associated with swimming are mere annoyances, and they’re treatable and often preventable.

Four common ailments that afflict swimmers can ruin a good vacation or even sideline you for the summer. Here’s how to protect yourself and your family before diving in.

Swimmer's itch

Swimmer’s itch is a rash that is as irritating as the one you get from poison ivy. This one, however, occurs after swimming in freshwater lakes and ponds, and it’s an allergic reaction to parasites that burrow under your skin while you’re in the water, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Horrible as that sounds, the unwelcome visitors won’t last long, and the rash will likely clear up within a few days without treatment. “Humans aren’t suitable hosts, so the parasites die while still in your skin,” the Mayo Clinic says.

The ocean version is called sea itch, and it’s caused by something called “sea lice," which aren't lice, but the larvae of jellyfish or sea anemones. These don't burrow under your skin, but they sting, and you might not know you've been stung until three or four hours after you emerge from the water.

Treat both with itch-relief creams and gels from a pharmacy, or better yet, try to prevent the varmints from getting on you in the first place by applying waterproof sunscreen, which acts as a deterrent. A layer of petroleum jelly might also help prevent sea lice, according to AL.com, the website of The Birmingham News.

To prevent swimmer's itch, think twice about swimming in marshy areas where snails might be found, or in water where there are lots of ducks or geese present. “The parasites that cause swimmer's itch live in the blood of waterfowl and in animals that live near ponds and lakes,” the Mayo Clinic says.

And strong swimmers might want to stay in deeper, colder water because the parasites thrive in warm, shallow water.

Finally, rinse with clean water after your swim, towel off vigorously, and always wash your swimsuit with detergent. If you've got sea itch, also dry your swimsuit on high heat to kill any jellyfish larvae still clinging to the fabric.

Swimmer's ear

Swimmer's ear is a painful infection that primarily affects teenagers and young adults. It occurs when bacteria or a fungus from dirty water enters the ear and gets trapped there. “Too much moisture can change the microflora of the ear canal, which allows bacteria to multiply,” Jennifer Cook wrote for Consumer Reports.

The resulting inflammation or infection can cause ear pain, itching and drainage of a yellowish-green pus; in chronic cases, there may also be hearing loss.

To prevent swimmer’s ear, tilt your head and tug your ear lobes in different directions to expel water after every swim, Consumer Reports recommended. You could also dry your ears with a hair dryer held a foot way from your ear and set to the lowest setting, the Mayo Clinic says.

People who are especially susceptible to ear infections should also consider wearing ear plugs or a bathing cap when they swim. And some people might benefit from using homemade ear drops before swimming, mixing one part white vinegar and one part rubbing alcohol. Pour a few drops into each ear and then let it drain out. (Do not try this at home if you might have a punctured ear drum, the Mayo Clinic warns.)

And don’t clean your ears — or your children’s ears — with cotton swabs. Doing so removes ear wax or pushes it deep in the ear canal. Ear wax is important and helps block the bacteria and funguses that can cause swimmer’s ear. “The rule of thumb with Q-tips is don't put anything in your ear smaller than your elbow,” William H. Shapiro, an audiologist and clinical associate professor from NYU Langone Medical Center, quipped to Business Insider.

If you do get swimmer's ear despite these precautions, you can buy ear drops over the counter and take ibuprofen for the pain, but if those don't help, you'll likely need to see a physician to get antibiotic drops and, in the most serious cases, to have a wick inserted so the medicine can get through the blockage.

Swimmer's headache

A headache that comes on several hours after swimming may be the result of using goggles that are too tight.

A more serious form is swimmer’s migraine, which is a sudden, severe headache “that has an explosive onset with exercise,” according to a study by Dr. John C. O’Brien Jr., a physician in Dallas.

Most post-swim headaches, however, are known to medical professionals as ECHs — external compression headaches — and they’re suffered by people who wear tight swim caps or goggles, as well as athletes who wear helmets or headbands, Susan Dawson-Cook wrote for the U.S. Masters Swimming website.

Dr. Alan Diamond, a swimmer and neurologist in Fayetteville, Arkansas, told Dawson-Cook that the headaches occur when pressure is applied to one of four major nerves in the head.

“How nerves react to the pressure put upon them by headwear can vary widely from swimmer to swimmer. Some swimmers can tighten their goggles to extremes while others have to be very cautious or suffer painful consequences. This variance is, in part, due to differences in skull anatomy,” Diamond said.

If you’re prone to compression headaches but don’t want to give up your goggles, try using several different types and changing them frequently so that the pressure points vary. Or buy goggles made of softer material. This sort of headache should resolve on its own after the goggles come off. If not, see a doctor, Diamond said.

Sinus headaches can also occur after swimming if your nasal passages become inflamed from swimming pool chemicals or bacteria in water, according Barrett Barlowe, writing for Livestrong. Over-the-counter pain pills can help with this type of headache, as well as saline nose sprays.

Swimmer's shoulder

Finally, if you or your children swim regularly, you may be at risk for swimmer's shoulder, a catch-all term for a variety of repetitive-use injuries.

Swimming is an unusual sport because it employs the shoulders and arms to move the body, Dr. Sherwin Ho, a Chicago orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine, wrote for Medscape. Also, water is more resistant to movement than air, Ho said.

“This combination of unnatural demands can lead to a spectrum of overuse injuries seen in the swimmer's shoulder, the most common of which is rotator cuff tendonitis,” he wrote.

Some studies have shown that a third or more of elite swimmers have experienced significant shoulder pain that interferes with their training.

Swimmers are sometimes advised to stretch and lift weights to improve range of motion and build strength in the shoulders and arms, but in Swimming World magazine, California physical therapist G. John Mullen said swimmers should avoid any exercise that strains or restricts the shoulder, or puts too much weight on the back.

Among the worst exercises for swimmers, according to Mullen, are the bench press, leg lifts, and — bad news for triathletes — hours of running. “Running can cause wear and tear on the body and exhaust the swimmer before practice even begins,” Mullen wrote. “Problems with gait can lead to training imbalances in the legs as well.”

A team at Cincinnati Children's Sports Medicine advises parents of children who swim to work with their children on posture since regular swimming can lead to a rounded-shoulder or forward-leaning position at rest.

"To fix this, have your swimmer focus on straightening up as if a string were being pulled from the torso through the top of the head. Roll the shoulders back to an even position on either side of the body," the Cincinnati Children's Sports Medicine website advises.

The team also recommends an exercise called scap squeezes, in which the swimmer sits straight, then pretends to squeeze an imaginary penny between her shoulder blades. "Practicing good posture and scap squeezes can reduce a number of shoulder problems by introducing proper position and body mechanics," the website says.

EMAIL: jgraham@deseretnews.com

TWITTER: @grahamtoday

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