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by Laura Thornton

December 23, 2019

Small cuts are OK in the pool, but wait until that larger wound has healed up, especially if you’re swimming in open water

Have you ever worried about picking up an unsavory bacterium from swimming with an open wound?

If you’re swimming in a pool, and it’s just a small cut, such as a paper cut, don’t worry—you’re highly unlikely to develop anything problematic.

“Swimming in the pool with an open cut is generally safe, from a skin and soft tissue infection standpoint,” says Elizabeth Wang, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center. “Chlorination, if done properly, should kill a lot of bacteria in the water. If it’s just a simple abrasion, rather than a gaping wound, you will most likely be okay.”

Although it’s fine to swim in a pool with an open paper cut, Wang advises against pool swimming when you have an open wound or a wound with stitches—it’s just better to be safe. And she wouldn’t do either in open water.

Open water contains a variety of bacteria that can lead to wound infection. For example, the bacterium Vibrio vulnificus can lead to necrotizing fasciitis and overwhelming sepsis, particularly for anyone who has uncontrolled diabetes or liver disease or is immunocompromised.

For anything larger than a paper cut, it’s a good idea to let yourself heal first.

“To protect yourself and others, if you have a larger cut, you should let it scab over before swimming,” says John Anderson, an internal medicine specialist with Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital. “If there’s any pus, you shouldn’t be getting the wound near other people.”

And be careful of rashes, particularly cellulitis, a bacterial skin infection.

“The skin is the first barrier of defense, and with a rash, the skin will already be susceptible to abrasions. But if you just have an allergic, itchy rash, I think you’re fine—just wash carefully when you get out of the water,” Anderson adds.

Lesser Dangers at the Pool

“Swimming in the pool, however, does put one at higher risk for diarrheal illness,” Wang says. “The CDC has reported multiple outbreaks of cryptosporidiosis acquired from swimming pools and public water parks, as this parasite is highly resistant to chlorination. It is also possible to acquire other diarrheal illnesses, as people frequently swallow water that potentially contains fecal matter.”

And if you look forward to a soak in the hot tub after a tough swim, just be cautious that the hot tub’s chlorine level is frequently checked—ideally, at least twice a day, Wang says. In a hot tub that’s not properly cleaned and chlorinated, a certain bacterium often misnamed “hot tub virus” can proliferate, which can lead to hot tub folliculitis, an infection of the hair follicles that looks like a red, pimply rash.

“It’s not all that common, but if a hot tub doesn’t look clean or well-maintained, I’d say stay out of it for your own safety,” Anderson says.

Staying Healthy

To help with healing, Anderson and Wang advise good nutrition and not smoking, which causes vascular constriction. And soap and water can help keep the wound from getting infected, they say.

These simple steps can help keep wounds from getting to the point where swimming becomes risky. And Wang herself, despite being well-versed in the types of bacteria that can lurk in open water, doesn’t shy away from it.

She’s participated in two triathlons that involve swimming in a freshwater lake and has swum in the Chesapeake Bay and at Maryland’s Gunpowder Falls State Park, and as she says, “I’m still alive to tell it. So, at the end of the day, it’s how much calculated risk you are willing to take.”

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.


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