Recreational Water Illnesses on Rivers

I had a wonderful paddle down the Trinity River today. It was a relatively clean stretch, but a more experienced paddler suggested that if we sat in water for any amount of time, we use Vagisil after washing up. Just in case.

That got me wondering if anybody on these forums has had experience with an RWI (recreational water illness) after kayaking or canoeing? Do any of you take particular precautions after paddling on certain lakes or rivers? Thanks for the feedback!


– Last Updated: Sep-27-14 6:16 PM EST –

On rivers, take care of cuts promptly. Several paddlers I know have had infections. Similarly, for sinus infections (for those that roll often, getting water in their sinuses).

On calm waters the chance of illnesses is generally higher vs. on moving water.

After rains, higher due to sewage runoff.

Flesh earing bacteria and brain eating amoebae are common in many waters in areas where we don't hear much about them, such as in VA and MD. Of course, FL and other warmer places are much worse...

Once about five years ago
In the black Water river race on the Edistoe River in SC.

A whole bunch of us ended up with some real nasty “Crotch Crud”.

The race was in April and mine didn’t clear up until the fall. I think Red Cross Randy said his lasted until Christmas.

There were trees down all over the place and many times we had to straddle a large tree to pull our canoes up and over them.

I went through a lot of anti-itch cream!

Jack L

Glad I asked!
Thanks for the info, Kocho & jackL! The flesh-eating bacteria is especially scary (thanks for the links), but ignorance sure wouldn’t help me be prepared.

While just a little exposure can get you
sick a lot, it’s so variable that it’s hard to know what precautions to take.

I rowed and sculled on the Charles River in Boston for five years. At that time, '60-65, there were mats of raw sewage floating in the water. I never got sick. I recall one guy who got infected because he didn’t take normal precautions about blisters.

Since then, most of the rivers I’ve paddled have been dirty. But the only time I’m sure I got a river related illness was when I accidentally ingested river mud that had gotten on the nozzle of my canteen.

Probably the more we paddle, the more we acquire some resistance to water bugs.

status quo in southern lower MI
Grand River in midMichigan: for the past few years a few handwash stations equipped w. wipes have been seen (posted w. reminders to wash hands, face etc) after contact w. water.

Huron River in Ann Arbor and downriver of A2 is contaminated enough at times to warrant washing up ASAP after a day on the water, esp. after immersion.

Clinton River has same issues.

On Detroit River kayak tours, the outfitter tells ppl upfront to avoid undue/unnecessary exposure to water.

Due to the aging infrastructure of many urban/suburban areas in Michigan there is always the risk of fecal matter and e coli discharging, with or without heavy rains, as well as the presence of many microbial agents.

I keep a small bottle of waterless antibacterial handcleaner in the drybag which holds my lunch/snacks.

Never a bad idea to keep baby wipes and/or handcleaner in the car. The sooner the skin is cleaned after paddling the better.

Water quality
Remote rivers pose few problems. Urban paddling is something else again. That is why I rarely paddle near cities or urban waterways. Seattle is a good exception.

Salt water too?
Never thought much about this. For those who know, is this as much of a concern in salt water? I paddle a lot in Western Long Island Sound. No one has any illusions that the water is clean. They close beaches fairly often around here. Strong tidal movement does help some. Any thoughts on whether exposure to these kinds of waters can cause illnesses?

Sorry if this is hijacking a thread, I can start another if preferred.


just wait till you come down with a good
case of giardia and we’ll see how ya feel about remote streams then.

You have to ingest the water to get

Except if you touch giardia infested waters and then fail to wash your hands. Humans are efficient at giving themselves giardia.

all kinds of nasties in the water

– Last Updated: Sep-28-14 1:12 PM EST –

Sinus infections are frequent and recurring. While "inner tubers rash", trench foot, and athletes foot occur from prolonged exposure. Giardia can occur from just swallowing a few mouthfuls. It helps to shower after getting off the water and little alcohol in the ears promotes evaporation. Doing a sinus rinse helps keep me on the water and out of the drs office.
The only place I practice rolling is in the pool.

perforated ear drums
I don’t have them, but when the Ocoee River started flowing again in the mid 1970s as a result of TVA having to rebuild the flume that had diverted the water from the river bed since 1916, whitewater paddlers quickly starting running the river.

Unfortunately, the entire watershed had been polluted by copper smelting operations that had been conducted in the Copper Basin upstream for many years. High concentrations of sulfur dioxide had devastated the vegetation over a wide area and leached into the soil resulting in rapid, acidic runoff.

A number of whitewater kayakers who spent a fair amount of time upside down eventually developed tympanic membrane perforations and middle ear disease as a result of the acidic water.

The area has now been reforested and the water is no longer dangerously acidic but I’m sure the same phenomenon could occur elsewhere.

I lived in northeast Pennsylvania for over ten years and paddled Nescopeck Creek quite a few times. The original surface drainage of the entire Wyoming Valley area was largely destroyed by anthracite coal shaft mining operations and now a good deal of precipitation soaks directly into the abandoned mine shafts.

In the 1890s a massive mine drainage tunnel, the Jeddo tunnel was built to drain ground water from the mines. The Jeddo tunnel drains 4 large mine basins over around 33 square miles and carries an average of 40,000 gallons per minute and up to 100,000 gpm. Since the Nescopeck usually only runs during periods of relatively high rainfall, the tunnel drainage is probably toward the higher end of that range during those times. The tunnel drains into Little Nescopeck Creek which flows into the Nescopeck and eventually the Susquehanna River.

The Jeddo Tunnel drainage is also quite acidic and high in metal concentrations including aluminum, magnesium, manganese, and iron as well as zinc, chloride and sulfate.

The tunnel drainage has been getting less acidic and metal concentrations have been dropping. Although I never became sick after paddling the Nescopeck, I had friends and acquaintances who claimed they had.

Sad commentary.
What have we done to our most precious resource?

Time to move north, eh?

Good suggestions…
…thanks, Katabatic! I wouldn’t have thought to bring antibacterial gel with me.

This is definitely on point…

– Last Updated: Sep-28-14 1:50 PM EST –

... so you're not hijacking the thread at all, Mark. One of the articles linked a little higher up (by Kocho) leads to a story about someone who almost died after being in Chesapeake Bay. That's salt water, right?


Noseclips for rescue practice, rolling
Our kayak club uses a large reservoir in central NC. It has a lot of algae, and our genius state legislators killed some new rules to prevent yet more urban runoff from entering this lake. So I am adamant about using noseclips anytime I practice wet exits and reentries, also rolling. And I try to get paddlers in rescue practice sessions to do the same. No sinus infections yet! Fingers crossed. G in NC

Catawissa - Loyalsock
The Cat is acidic, water’s clear.The Sock is acidic an clear, so salty from snow melting the trout are restocked for tourism. The Sock’s drainage holds giardia…so far my liver’s ok.

Never problems swimming there. absent fecal material, acidity works against bacteria and algae. Perrier adds acidic flavor to the bubbly water. An opened Perrier will not ‘go bad’ for several days in hot weather.

The Upper Delaware may be acidic still. Roebling’s bridge led to small coal mines on the western hillsides, today a park with past times interests…like the shovel strip mine of the Dutch.

Once I suffered from ‘rumbly gut’ leading to diarehahaha. Discovered the responsible bacteria dwell in the crevice between knife handles and knife blades.

Isopropyl knives and sporks.

Canadian water

Is swimmer’s itch common in Canada…home of the Goose, or is the water too cold ?

Norovirus is in every ocean/sea
There are other pathogens, but this is the one I’d be most concerned about avoiding, because it is incredibly contagious.

In Maine and Ontario and further north, weed problems and blue green algae blooms are almost unheard of.

Giardia… dont drink shallow depth lake water where animals might have pooped. Most people here use a water filter when camping.

In deeper lakes the UV rays from the sun do a nice job of killing bacteria in the top layer… I’ve drunk right from my lake many times. Its 35 feet deep. You can see down 22 feet.