10 Infectious Diseases That Are Spread Through Water

A researcher collecting sample of contaminated water for inspection of its quality in the lab. Image credit: kosmos111/Shutterstock.com
A researcher collecting sample of contaminated water for inspection of its quality in the lab. Image credit: kosmos111/Shutterstock.com
  • All the diseases on this list are easily preventable, mostly by providing access to safe water and proper hygiene.
  • Water-borne diseases kill millions of people every year. Many of the victims are young children.
  • Leptospirosis can also be a common disease affecting dogs, so your veterinarian may recommend that your canine companion receive a vaccination for this.

Water is a basic element of life. Without water, an organism on Earth cannot survive. But sometimes, water can contain dangerous pathogens that can infect people to cause lethal diseases. And every year, millions of people around the world are killed by these illnesses, often because they do not have access to safe and clean water, proper sanitation and good hygiene. Here are 10 infectious diseases that are spread through water: 

1. Salmonellosis

Electron microscope showing Salmonella typhimurium(red) invading cultured human cells

This is a common bacterial disease often caused by drinking water contaminated with bacteria of the Salmonella type. It can also occur by consuming undercooked meat, egg products and produce infected with the bacteria. Common symptoms of this disease include fever, diarrhea, nausea, and abdominal pain. It takes around 12 to 36 hours for the symptoms to develop after infection. Severe dehydration is not treated in time can lead to death. Those with a weak immune system are more susceptible to this disease.

2. Escherichia coli (E. coli)

Low-temperature electron micrograph of a cluster of E. coli bacteria, magnified 10,000 times. Each individual bacterium is oblong shaped.

Like Salmonella, E. Coli infection is also contracted by eating contaminated food or drinking water with the bacteria. Although most E. coli strains are harmless, a few can make you fall ill. If you have the misfortune of contracting this bacterial disease, you will likely experience diarrhea and stomach cramps. Some strains of E. coli also cause urinary tract infections, respiratory illnesses, etc. The good news is that E. Coli infections usually resolve within a week. However, both older people and young children as well as those with a compromised immune system are more susceptible to this disease and sometimes can develop life-threatening symptoms. 


Giardia cell, SEM. Image credit: CDC/Janice Haney Carr/Public domain

This is a parasitic disease caused by Giardia duodenalis that comes from food or water contaminated with feces having Giardia duodenalis cysts. Symptoms include abdominal pain, cramps, bloating, diarrhea, vomiting and weight loss. There is no vaccine for this disease, but it can be treated with antibiotics and anti-parasitic medication. As with other diseases on this list, giardiasis is easily preventable by providing access to safe sources of water.

4. Leptospirosis

Working in a paddy field barefoot is a risk factor for leptospirosis. Image credit: Evi Susanti Sinaga, Indonesia/Public domain

This is a bacterial illness spread by the urine of infected animals, which can in turn contaminate water, soil and plants. Some symptoms include a high fever, headache, nausea and vomiting. In severe cases, kidney failure, bleeding in lungs, and meningitis can occur. Treatment involves administering appropriate antibiotics as soon as possible. But the best way to stave off leptospirosis is through prevention, which involves controlling the prevalence of contaminated animals, protecting oneself against sources of the disease, such as contaminated water, and preventing infection or disease in a human host through vaccination or antibiotic prophylaxis. 

5. Diarrhea

Diarrhea is often a symptom of water-borne illnesses, but it can also be a disease unto itself. In developed countries, diarrhea is usually just an inconvenience. In less developed countries, however, it can mean death. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), diarrhea kills around 2.2 million people each year, many of them children. Like other diseases on this list, it is commonly caused by contaminated water, especially that which is contaminated with human feces. It can also, however, be spread from person to person. In severe cases, diarrhea causes dehydration that can lead to death. Treatment involves giving lots of fluids and the use of oral rehydration salts. Diarrhea is easily preventable through the provision of clean, safe drinking water, good hygiene practices and proper sanitation.

6. Cholera

Scanning electron micimage of Vibrio cholerae

This is a bacterial disease that leads to acute infection of the intestine. It is spread by the feces of people who have been infected, and can be present in both the water that people drink and the food that they eat. The illness is prevalent in many underdeveloped countries, where people lack access to safe sources of drinking water and food. Poor sanitation and lack of good hygiene practices can lead to outbreaks of cholera, especially in crowded settlements. A person infected with the disease will experience diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. Severe cases can lead to rapid dehydration and death. About half of people left untreated die of the illness. Treatment involves the replacement of lost fluids and salts. To achieve this most effectively, oral rehydration salts should be given to infected persons. Cholera can be prevented simply by providing access to safe drinking water, proper personal and food hygiene, and hygienic disposal of human waste.

7. Hepatitis

Jaundiced eyes is one of the common symptoms of hepatitis. 

There are different types of this disease. Types A and E can be transmitted through water and food that is contaminated with human feces. The disease is essentially inflammation of the liver. Symptoms include fever, loss of appetite and nausea. Fortunately, most people who contract Hepatitis A or E recover without any long-term effects. There is no specific treatment, so prevention is key. As with other water-borne diseases, access to safe water and good hygiene practices can prevent Hepatitis A and E from occurring. In addition, there is a vaccine for Hepatitis A, which is often recommended to people travelling to tropical destinations.

8. Dysentery

This disease is an infection of the intestinal tract, and like other ailments on this list, it is commonly spread through fecal matter. Eating contaminated food and drinking or swimming in contaminated water can result in infection. Symptoms include diarrhea and stomach cramps. In severe cases, a person with dysentery will become dehydrated, and without treatment, could die. If treatment is necessary, it involves drinking plenty of fluids, and in severe cases, a person can be placed on an intravenous (IV) fluid replacement. Prevention is simple and involves keeping proper hygiene, like washing your hands before eating and preparing food, or after using the toilet. It also involves staying clear of potential sources of infection, especially contaminated water and food.

9. Guinea Worm Disease

Guinea worm larvae. Image credit: CDC/Dr. Mae Melvin/Public domain

Also referred to as dracunculiasis, this disease is caused by a parasite called the Guinea worm. When a persons drinks water that is contaminated with water fleas bearing the larvae of the parasite, the parasite enters the system of the person. The person remains asymptomatic for nearly a year after which the female worm emerges through a painful blister in the skin, usually that of the lower limbs. The phenomenon is accompanied with dizziness, vomiting, and a difficulty to walk. The disease is, however, rarely deadly.

10. Typhoid Fever

Almroth Edward Wright developed the first effective typhoid vaccine. Image credit: 

As its name implies, typhoid , a bacterial disease, is accompanied by a high fever, and can also involve symptoms like fatigue, headache, abdominal pain, nausea, and constipation or diarrhea. It can be treated with antibiotics, but is also easily preventable. Vaccines have been developed to provide at least some immunity from the disease, though the easier way of preventing it is by avoiding sources of contaminated water, ensuring proper sanitation and making sure that people preparing, handling and eating food maintain good hygiene.


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