general ramblings from a wannabe triathlete, confirmed foodie, and nutrition nerd

Open water swimming: there’s something in the water…

Well of course there’s something in the water! There’s you, the swimmer, for a start. And usually several other people unless you’re daft enough to go for a dip on your own.

Which is a Bad Idea. A very Bad Idea.

Solo open water swimming is a big no-no – don’t do it folks! Open water can be unpredictable – currents, weather, tides, weeds, boats – if you get into trouble David Hasselhoff isn’t going to don his speedos and come to your rescue. Always swim with others – you know it makes sense 🙂

So anyway, other than the neoprene-clad swimmers and the odd trout, do you really know what’s in the water?

I’m talking about pathogens. Those microscopic little critters (to use the correct scientific terminology) that bob about under the surface like teeny-weeny sharks, ready to lock onto their target (i.e. you) and attack at the first opportunity. Mouth, eyes, that paper cut on your left pinky finger – given half the change they’ll be in like a shot.

To be fair, water-borne infections aren’t all that common in the UK. At least not the serious, death-by-diarrhoea epidemics that are seen elsewhere in the world. Unless you go for a dip in raw sewage (like a certain Mr. Walliams did in the Thames), it’s not actually that likely that you’ll pick up anything serious. Typhoid and dysentery do crop up, but not often. And when was the last time you heard of someone contracting schistosomiasis or dracunculiasis?

Whilst people new to swimming in open water  may find that they experience a little bit of tummy trouble thanks to novel pathogens in the water, their immune system soon kicks in and beats the blighters into submission, and the next swim is plain sailing.

Others aren’t so fortunate, and, alas, I was one of those unlucky few who managed to pick up something a tad more serious.


Also known as Weil’s disease, although technically, that refers to a specific presentation of symptoms which I didn’t have.

Technicality aside, lepto (as those of us who know it intimately sometimes call it), is rather unpleasant.

I’m not entirely sure where I caught it – I’d been swimming in two places – Salford Quays and Lake Ullswater – in the few days leading up to the onset of symptoms, so it could have been either.

Salford seems the more likely suspect. Although monitored regularly, it isn’t actually classified as bathing water.

Ullswater is a place of natural beauty. The lake is huge and stunning. Or it is usually .

The day I swam in it – for the Day in the Lakes half Ironman – it was frigid and turbulent. You could have been mistaken for thinking it was the ocean, the waves were so high. A fair few people (the sensible ones) turned back from the water, but as I was part of a relay team – who were relying on me completing the swim – I forged ahead. Quite honestly, I’d have to say it was one of the worst experiences of my life. I hated every minute of it. I got through it though, and the race went on whilst I staggered back to my tent to try and warm up.

It was a few days before the symptoms started – fever, chills, headaches, vomiting and pain. Oh my, the pain. I felt like my insides were being ripped apart. A good course of antibiotics and a reasonably robust immune system (it’s had enough practice over the years!) and I was soon on the road to recovery. But I’m afraid my liking for open water swimming was somewhat diminished.

So anyway, to summarise: water has things in it. Things you can’t see that can cause all sorts of problems, but truth be told it’s not likely. Think of all of those open water swimmers, rowers, yachtsmen, divers, etc. who in their thousands enjoy outdoor water activities with no problem. Major problems are rare, and quite frankly you’re more likely to get into trouble whilst on the motorway or walking down the road.

And now for a brief lesson in parasitology! Keep reading – there’s some interesting trivia here that might one day win you a pub quiz 🙂

Dracunculiasis – also known as Guinea worm disease – is a nasty infection. Not than any infections are nice, but I’m sure you know what I mean. It’s a parasitic disease caused by Dracunculus medinensis, a nematode worm which finds its way into the body when the host drinks water contaminated with its larvae. The larvae mature, a bit of parasitic nookie goes down, and the mature female worm (the poor boys die after mating) migrates, typically down one leg, and year or so after infection, in a blaze of burning agony, it emerges through a blister on the host’s foot ready to release the next generation of spawn onto other unsuspecting victims.


Now here’s the interesting trivia. Once the worm emerges from the blisters, it’s common practice (or at least it was – the World Health Organization and Center for Disease Control (an American spelling for an American institution) is making fantastic progress in eradicating the disease) to wrap the worm around a stick to remove it from the body. Dracunculiasis is an ancient disease, and it’s thought that this practice of removal inspired the Rod of Asclepius  (the Greek god of medicine and healing), which today is used as an international symbol of medicine.

The Rod of Asclepius
or Guinea worm removal?

Now how about that 🙂

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