Go ahead, spend the holiday splashing away in your neighborhood pool until you're waterlogged. Aside from an occasional case of swimmer's ear, athlete's foot from the shower or stinging eyes from the chlorine, there isn't too much to dim the pleasure of the popular refreshment of a lap or ten.
Martin S. Favero, the specialist in swimming pool health and safety at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, says the big question this year, of course, is "what about AIDS?"
The link between the deadly acquired immune deficiency syndrome and the homosexual baths of San Francisco has erroneously become linked in the public mind to swimming.
Says Favero: "In my estimation the only way a person can get AIDS in a swimming pool or whirlpool or hot tub, for that matter is by sexual contact. Just being there isn't enough.
"In the first place," says Favero, "the amount of dilution is tremendous, and that immediately decreases the probability that the virus could get to the right spot in the right person at the right time.
"In the second place, the germicides used in most pools are sufficient to inactivate the agent. People think because AIDS is so terrible that the virus must be a supervirus, resistant to anything. In fact, it is highly sensitive to heat, to germicides and to chemicals.
"Thirdly," says Favero, "it is not efficiently transmitted. It must get into the body's vascular system -- the bloodstream. AIDS is transmitted sexually, by injection and by blood transfusion -- a form of injection.
"Even assuming a massive infusion of viruses in a pool," says Favero, "unless a casual swimmer actually injected the water into his own bloodstream, there would still be virtually no probability of infection."
A spokeswoman for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, where much AIDS research is being conducted, notes that blood spills in AIDS wards are cleaned with a chlorine agent -- underscoring that chemical's usefulness in inactivating the virus. There are no known cases of AIDS contracted in a swimming pool, the NIAID spokeswoman said, "but on the other hand, swimming pools offer no special protection to people engaging in underwater sexual activity."
"In fact," says Favero, "although pools were closed during the great summer polio outbreaks in the 1940s, the polio virus probably wasn't transmitted in the pools either, but rather from person to person. They closed the pools and the outbreaks were curbed, but that was probably because they prevented the herd effect and kept people at home, away from others.
"Right now, I would say that today it would be impossible to transmit polio by means of swimming in a modern pool," even without the polio vaccine protection.
Another misconception that caused a brief flurry of public concern grew out of the results of a laboratory study that suggested that the herpes virus could exist outside a host under certain humid conditions.
In an article Favero wrote for the American Journal of Public Health, he quoted the authors of the study as themselves dismissing the likelihood of herpes transmission on the benches around a hot tub. They concluded, wrote Favero, "that more important than what's next to a hot tub is what goes on inside it." Nevertheless, the myth caught on.
One organism that can be a threat in a hot tub, whirlpool or swimming pool, is the awesome sounding Pseudomonas aeruginosa. It is a so-called gram negative water bacterium and exists vritually everywhere there is water: tap, pool or puddle -- even, says Favero, in distilled water.
In hospitals, says Favero, it can cause problems when it afflicts people recovering from surgery or other illnesses. In pools and baths, "when you can get 10,000 to a million bacteria for each cubic centimeter of water, if someone is in the water for as little as 20 minutes, if the bacteria is the right type, it can attack the skin and produce what is known as," and he pauses, "a rash."
Virtually all outbreaks of P. aeruginosa, Favero says, are caused by poor maintenance of the pool or hot tub, too little germicide or failure to change filters. You can never get rid of this ubiquitous germ, but you can keep it down to manageable levels.
A decade or so ago, members of a Washington suburban neighborhood pool had a mini-epidemic of ear infections that were ultimately diagnosed as "urinary tract infections of the middle ear."
The pool membership clamped down on allowing untoilet-trained kiddies in the adult pool, but Favero says it sounded like his old friend P. aeruginosa, which often causes urinary tract infections, was really to blame. If there are enough bacteria in the water and the water gets into the ear, it can make a happy home there, too, causing many a case of otitis media.
Says Favero: "All those little kids peeing in the pool -- that's a myth. The idea is that the pseudomonas is always there. You just have to have enough germicides and clean filters and good maintenance to keep it at a very low level."
Hint: A good way to prevent swimmer's ear of any kind is to squeeze a few drops of alcohol from a medicine dropper into each ear after each swim. It quickly dries any water that otherwise can get trapped behind ear wax. WW ading pools, suggests Favero, are another matter. He believes they are W the source of a lot of more-or-less minor ills, many gastrointestinal disorders "that go unreported. There is usually a bacterial overload," he notes, "so it is not well disinfected, and the little kids tend to drink the water."
Nevertheless, Favero points out that the risk of accidents in pools is significantly higher than the risk of "catching" something. And many swimming accidents are related to drinking alcohol.
It has been estimated that of the approximately 8,000 annual drownings, some 70 percent are related to the abuse of alcohol. Drink clouds judgments of pool depth, for example, and may also lead to dangerous water "horseplay."