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by Kelly O’Mara

November 28, 2019

Swimming with a cold might be OK but know the risks for you and for others

There are times of year when it seems nearly impossible to avoid catching a cold or the flu. Everyone in the office and at your kids’ school is sick and you’re bound to catch something. You might need to stay home to get better and to avoid giving your illness to other people. But you might also feel like there’s no need and you want to get back to swimming.

There are some issues, though, with swimming with a cold. And in addition to worrying about your illness and exercise, you should take into consideration the chance of others catching your cold.

Can I swim with a cold?

Yes, if you’re not debilitated, then you can swim with a cold. The question here is: Should you swim with a cold?

In general, if your symptoms are above the neck then you can do moderate exercise. This is largely based on one study that found otherwise healthy people who had a basic cold—which they were given for the sake of the study—found their symptoms didn’t get worse and in some cases were relieved by moderate exercise. The length and severity of their cold was no worse than those who didn’t exercise.

There is also other research that suggests brief bouts of high-intensity exercise don’t affect the immune system—though it probably doesn’t feel good either if you’re hacking and coughing.

What this means in practice is swimming with a cold is likely OK if you’re just stuffed up and maybe have a sore throat. But if the symptoms extend below the neck, then you shouldn’t exercise. That means stay out of the pool if you have a fever, muscle aches, extreme fatigue, an infection that settles in your lungs, or swollen glands. The American Council on Exercise recommends two weeks before returning to intensive exercise if you have any of those symptoms. You also shouldn’t exercise if the illness lasts for an extended period of time.

The effect of swimming with a cold

The reason some doctors will advise against exercising when you’re sick, especially if it’s below the neck, is because there are risks. This is particularly true if you have a fever. There is the chance you can get sicker or the cold turns into an infection. You might also just feel worse—more stuffed up or have a harder time breathing. One danger that people are become increasingly aware of is the risk of damaging your heart by exercising with a fever. Myocarditis is inflammation of the heart muscle caused by a viral infection and there is some evidence that when your body is fighting of a fever or flu you’re at an increased risk for myocarditis.

Even if you’re not worried about your heart, it may also simply be unpleasant to swim with a cold—both for you and for the other people swimming with you. It depends on your symptoms. Some people find after swimming with a cold, they feel worse. Some people feel a lot better, like it clears out their sinuses.

When you swim with a cold you also increase the risk for other swimmers of catching your cold. Yes, chlorine kills viruses and bacteria. (Chlorine doesn’t kill all germs, as the CDC notes, but if a pool is chlorinated correctly it should kill most germs associated with the common cold.) However, chlorine doesn’t work instantaneously. As a courtesy to your lanemates, get out of the pool to blow your nose or cough.

Looking for more great information about swimming? Check out our Swimming 101 guide featuring swimming pool and stroke basics, how to start swim training as an adult, and more.

Are you ready to take the next step in your swimming journey? Try a free workout with a Masters club this July as part of our Try Masters Swimming campaign.

All you need to do is fill out our trial membership form, find a participating club in your area, and pick a workout time to swim with the club. Come experience for yourself the amazing emotional, mental, and physical health benefits tens of thousands of adults just like you across the country are already enjoying.



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