little kids swimming in pool underwater.

Life in the Lowcountry revolves around water. During the area’s scorching summers, in particular, families flock to local beaches, lakes, rivers and pools for refreshment and recreation.

But for all of its benefits, water can also bring risks, especially for little ones who can’t swim.

In South Carolina, 20 children and teens (ages 18 and younger) died from drowning in 2017, up from 17 the previous year, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. Most of those drownings occurred in swimming pools or open water such as lakes or the ocean, DHEC reports.

Aside from drowning, swimmers need to be wary of other hazards, including dangerous water conditions, potentially harmful ocean creatures and water-borne illnesses.

To learn how to minimize these risks and keep kids safe around water, we reached out to state and local health and safety experts for advice.

A watchful eye

Water safety rule No. 1: Always watch your child.

Luke Abel

Luke Abel, recreational waters program coordinator for DHEC

“Supervising children is the best method to prevent a drowning,” says Luke Abel, recreational waters program coordinator for DHEC. This applies even if you’re visiting a life-guarded pool or beach, he adds.

Designate an adult “water watcher” to keep an eye on youngsters in and around the water. These monitors should put away cell phones, reading materials and other distractions so they can focus on their task. Rotate water watcher duties among other adults in your group so everyone can have time to relax.

When visiting a swimming pool, also be aware of the tools at your disposal in case of an emergency. For instance, under state health laws, public pools must have a phone or other emergency notification device on site so patrons can call 911 if someone is in distress, Abel says. Public pools without lifeguards also must have life-saving devices such as a shepherd’s crook and a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life ring.

If you’re headed into the water with children, keep little kids and non-swimmers within arms’ length so you can grab them if they get into trouble. Don’t rely on inflatable arm bands, pool noodles or other recreational floats to keep your child safe. The best flotation device is a Coast Guard-approved life vest, health experts say.

Because so many local activities are water-based, it’s especially important for Lowcountry kids (and adults) to learn how to swim.

happy children kids group at swimming pool class learning to swim

“Swimming lessons are beneficial to help prevent child drowning and can foster a love of water in a young child,” Luke Abel, recreational waters program coordinator for DHEC says.

“Swimming lessons are beneficial to help prevent child drowning and can foster a love of water in a young child,” Abel says.

On guard

Lifeguards add an extra layer of protection at beaches and pools, but don’t expect them to watch your child for you, especially in large crowds. Lifeguards are the “second line of defense,” says Nikki Bowie, safety program manager for the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission.

Bowie manages the park system’s 300 lifeguards, who monitor the county’s popular water parks and beaches.

Last year, about 260,000 people visited Charleston County’s three water parks, while more than 500,000 folks trekked to its four guarded beach areas on the Isle of Palms, Kiawah Island and Folly Beach.

Lifeguards are trained to scan the water for signs of trouble, such as changes in swim patterns, children paddling out over their heads or weak swimmers getting tossed by ocean waves. But drowning often happens silently, Bowie notes. Unlike the “Hollywood version” of drowning, struggling swimmers rarely thrash around and scream for help.

Nikki Bowie

Nikki Bowie, safety program manager for the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission

Lifeguards can be a great resource for beach park visitors, she adds. They’re happy to answer questions about water conditions, rip currents, sea critter risks and more. When visiting a guarded area, point out the lifeguard station to your kids so they’ll know where to go if you get separated.

If you’ve got a cell phone with you, make sure your child knows your number. As an extra precaution, write the number on your youngster’s hand or arm in permanent marker.

If you lose track of your child, notify a lifeguard right away. They have access to radios and beach patrol vehicles to help locate lost beachgoers.

Rip current risks

Among the ocean’s biggest dangers are rip currents. Sometimes called rip tides or undertows, these powerful channels of water flow away from shore and out to sea. Swimmers caught in a rip current can quickly get pulled far from the beach. More than 100 people die each year nationwide due to rip currents, according the United States Lifesaving Association.

The best ways to avoid rip current risks are to swim at beaches with lifeguards and never swim alone.

Look for these clues that might signal a rip current:

  • A channel of churning, choppy water.
  • An area with a notable difference in water color.
  • A line of foam, seaweed or debris moving steadily seaward.
  • A break in the incoming wave pattern. (Keep in mind that rip currents are often not easy to identify for the untrained eye.)

If you’re caught in a rip current, follow these tips from the U.S. Lifesaving Association:

  • Remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly. Float or calmly tread water.
  • Don’t fight the current. Swim out of the current in a direction following the shoreline. When out of the current, swim towards shore.
  • If you’re unable to reach land, draw attention to yourself: Face the shore, wave your arms and yell for help
  • If you see someone in trouble in the water, notify a lifeguard or call 911.
Woman's neck with jelly fish bite

If you're stung by a jelly fish, try to remove remaining tentacles with a firm object like a credit card or driver’s license, or pluck them off with your fingers.

Stinging sensation

The ocean is home to all sorts of interesting sea creatures, some of which pose a risk to swimmers. Jellyfish are among the most common culprits. While most jellyfish in South Carolina waters are harmless to humans, some can sting swimmers who brush against their tentacles or other appendages armed with millions of small stinging cells. Most species along the South Carolina coast inflict only mild stings, according to state health experts.

In Lowcountry waters, jellyfish tend to be most prevalent in late July and early August, when a shift in currents pushes them closer to shore.

Lifeguards at Charleston County beach parks fly a purple flag when there’s a higher-than-normal danger of sea pests, such as jellyfish and stingrays.

Beach visitors should also watch out for jellyfish that have washed ashore. Even if they’re dead, they may still be capable of stinging.

If you’re stung by a jellyfish, Bowie and DHEC offer these tips:

  • Try to remove remaining tentacles with a firm object like a credit card or driver’s license, or pluck them off with your fingers.
  • To reduce the sting, pour salt water over the affected area. Other remedies that have been used in the past, such as fresh water or vinegar, aren’t effective in reducing pain, she says.
  • Try to immobilize the affected area to prevent further spread of the venom. For example, if a person was stung on the foot, encourage him to keep his foot still, with as little movement as possible.
  • For additional pain relief, apply ice or a cold pack to the affected area. Ice should be placed in a plastic bag and then wrapped in a cloth. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen also can help alleviate the sting.

Victims of serious stings, or those showing signs of an allergic reaction, should seek prompt medical attention.

Microbial maladies

Water-borne illnesses are another potential hazard of aquatic play. Also known as “recreational water illnesses” (RWIs), these conditions are caused by germs and chemicals found in the water we swim in, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Water-borne illnesses are spread by swallowing or having contact with contaminated water in swimming pools, hot tubs, water parks, water play areas, oceans or other bodies of water. They can lead to a wide variety of health problems, most commonly gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea. Other RWI symptoms include skin rashes, ear infections and respiratory infections.

In South Carolina, the most common illnesses associated with water are giardiasis and cryptosporidiosis, commonly known as “crypto.”

“Both illnesses are caused by parasites with outer shells that allow them to survive outside the body for long periods of time and make them tolerant to chlorine disinfection,” says Dr. Linda Bell, DHEC’s state epidemiologist.

Symptoms of both illnesses, which typically last one to two weeks, include diarrhea, upset stomach, abdominal cramps and dehydration from loss of fluids. In children, severe giardiasis may impact their long-term health. For people with weakened immune systems, crypto may lead to severe or life-threatening illness.

Another well-publicized water-borne illness is the “brain-eating amoeba,” Naegleria fowleri, which can cause a rare and sometimes fatal brain infection called primary amoebic encephalitis. Such infections are very rare, however. Over a nine-year period from 2010 to 2018 in South Carolina, there were only three confirmed cases of primary amoebic encephalitis infections in children, DHEC reports.

The amoeba is found in warm freshwater and usually infects people when contaminated water enters the body through the nose. On rare occasions, Naegleria infections may occur when other contaminated water sources, such as inadequately chlorinated swimming pool water or contaminated tap water, enters the nose.

To avoid contracting more common water-borne illnesses, don’t swallow water in pools, hot tubs, water parks or open waters, Bell says. To reduce the risk of infection from Naegleria fowleri, limit the amount of water that enters the nose.

To help limit the spread of water-borne illnesses, swimmers should wash their hands before entering pools or open waters, especially after using the restroom or changing a baby’s diaper. Parents should keep babies’ diapers clean if they’re swimming, and people with diarrhea should refrain from taking a dip. Caregivers should also take potty-trained tykes on regular bathroom breaks to prevent accidents in the pool. LCP