Mayo Clinic Health Library

Kids' swimming: Keep health risks at bay

Updated: 05-25-2011
Photo of Jay Hoecker, M.D.
Jay Hoecker, M.D.

Is it OK for your diaper-clad toddler to splash in the local pool? Can your child safely wear a cast or ear tubes in the water? Could bacteria lurking in the pool or lake make your little one sick? Before you help your child suit up — or decide to skip the water altogether — here are some practical tips for kids' swimming from Jay Hoecker, M.D., emeritus pediatrics specialist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.

Can babies or toddlers wear diapers in the water?

Various types of diapers are designed for underwater use. They're water-repellent and fit snugly around a child's thighs and waist, but they're not waterproof. If your child has a bowel movement in the water, fecal material may escape the diaper. A dirty diaper might contain diarrhea-causing germs, including the parasite cryptosporidium — which can contaminate pool water or other swimming areas. In otherwise healthy people, a cryptosporidium infection causes upset stomach and diarrhea. The consequences can be more severe for people who have weak immune systems.

Urine in the water is less risky than feces, but it's difficult to separate the two when children wear diapers. If you choose to allow your child to swim in a diaper, take regular breaks to change the diaper or use the toilet. Don't allow swimming if your child has diarrhea. In addition, children in diapers shouldn't use hot tubs or spas.

Is it risky for children to swallow pool water?

Your child is bound to take a few gulps of pool water at one time or another, especially when first learning to swim. A little swallowed pool water isn't typically cause for concern, but too much pool water can lead to illness. Don't allow your child to drink pool water, and encourage your child to spit out any water that gets in his or her mouth.

Can children who have casts go swimming?

It depends on the type of cast:

  • Plaster cast. If your child has a plaster cast over cloth wrapping, he or she must stay out of the water. Trying to protect a plaster cast with plastic bags generally isn't effective.
  • Fiberglass cast. If your child has a fiberglass cast that's lined with a water-repellent liner, it's usually OK to swim — as long as you have the doctor's OK. After swimming, it's important to thoroughly rinse the inside of the cast with clean water. Generally, you can allow the cast to air-dry.

Can children swim if they have ear tubes?

If your child has ear tubes — tiny cylinders placed through the eardrum to drain fluid and allow air into the middle ear — ask his or her doctor about ear protection for swimming. Some doctors recommend that children who have ear tubes wear earplugs or swimming caps while swimming to prevent bacteria from entering the middle ear. However, routine use of earplugs may only be needed when children dive or swim in untreated water, such as lakes and rivers.

What's the best way to prevent swimmer's ear?

Swimmer's ear is an infection that's often treated with prescription eardrops.

To prevent swimmer's ear:

  • Encourage your child to wear earplugs while swimming
  • Dry your child's ears with a towel or hair dryer on a low setting after swimming
  • Use isopropyl alcohol-based eardrops — or a 1-to-1 mixture of isopropyl alcohol and white vinegar, as long as your child doesn't have ear tubes — to clear water from your child's ear.

Don't use cotton swabs in your child's ears, which can scratch the ear canal and create a potential site for infection.

What about red eyes after swimming?

Exposure to chlorine may leave your child with red or puffy eyes. To ease discomfort and reduce redness after swimming, rinse your child's eyes with a sterile eyewash or an artificial tears solution. To prevent red or puffy eyes, encourage your child to wear goggles while swimming.

What's the best age to begin swimming lessons?

Many kids learn to ride a bike and to swim on their own at the same age — often the summer before kindergarten. The American Academy of Pediatrics supports swimming lessons for most children age 4 and older. If you choose to enroll a child younger than age 4 in a swimming program, pick one that doesn't require placing his or her head underwater. This will limit the amount of water your child may swallow.

Can children swim when they're sick or have cuts and scrapes?

It's fine for children who have colds or other minor illnesses to swim, as long as they feel well enough to do so. Likewise, it's OK for children to swim with cuts and scrapes — as long as the wounds aren't bleeding.

What about swimming after eating?

It's OK to swim immediately after a light meal or snack. If your child feels lethargic after eating a heavy meal, however, encourage him or her to take a break before swimming.

Are hot tubs safe for children?

Children can quickly become overheated in a hot tub or spa. If you allow your child to use a hot tub or spa, keep the visit brief — and don't allow your child to put his or her head underwater. This can increase the risk of ear infections. Far worse, long hair can get caught in an uncovered hot tub grate and cause drowning. Remember, too, that children in diapers shouldn't use a hot tub or spa.

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