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Water Safety Abroad: Simple Habits That Can Save Your Life

By Antonia Čirjak February 02 2020

A scuba diver in the ocean.
A scuba diver in the ocean.

Drowning alone accounts for 13% of US travelers’ deaths abroad, with alcohol consumption associated with nearly 70% of those. The most valuable piece of advice would be, “do not drink and dive.” Drowning is the leading cause of death of US visitors, even in well-equipped destinations like Fiji and Bahamas. If you are planning to spend some time in the water during your next trip, especially in developing countries where rescue and emergency services may be scarce, follow these simple precautions to stay safe and healthy!

How To Prevent An Injury Or Drowning

Do your research and be prepared. You want to know about the local tides, water conditions, currents, and domestic water life. Consult with experienced local guides. Or, much better, invite one with you when boating or diving: not all information is accessible via Internet research, and conditions change fast (you do not want to swim into a chemical spill, algae, or jellyfish bloom). 

Pay attention to the warning signs in your environment. Many popular tourist destinations post flag warnings on beaches. Do not ignore them: you can not know if something was dumped into the water or the bacteria level is too high. Always watch for the signs of rip currents, too many urchins or jellyfish washed ashore, or sudden weather change.

Use common sense precautions. Wear a life jacket even if you are a proficient swimmer. There is no guarantee you will not end up in the water injured or unconscious during water sports, and even an Olimpic gold medal would not help in that case. If you think that life jackets do not look cool, we would argue that dead bodies are way more unattractive.

Never swim alone in unfamiliar waters. Let a beach guard or boat station manager know about your plans. Do not drink and swim: this has been proven dangerous. Do not jump-dive in unfamiliar waters, no matter how deep it looks and always enter the water feet-first. Even a small obstacle can kill if you hit it, and it renders you unconscious. Always supervise kids around water: drowning is a leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 14.

Avoid Water-Born Diseases

In developing countries, in particular, water contamination along the shores or in smaller natural reservoirs and rivers is widespread: it is harder to find clean water. Sewage, fertilizers or pesticides wash-offs from local fields, industrial waste disposal are all common contaminants. 

Even freshwater that seems clean to the naked eye can cause infections, such as schistosomiasis and leptospirosis, which are not uncommon even in developed countries, especially in farmlands and highly populated areas. You also do not want to swim near landfill sites, waste dump sites (they typically seep into and contaminate groundwaters), in lakes or rivers after heavy rains, or next to storm drains. Avoid swimming in freshwater lakes and ponds in regions where schistosomiasis is common (Caribbean, South America, Africa, and Asia). 

Do not swallow and do not drink water from any freshwater sources, regardless of the water quality. Parasites and microorganisms occupy even seemingly clean water. The same applies to your pets: they are affected by these bacteria, microbes, and parasites as well, and they do not have any natural protection against them, the same as us. Bring clean bottled water for your dog if you are hiking or swimming together and keep up them up to date on Leptospirosis vaccination and dewormer. 

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