Pool Safety Guidance From a Pediatric Emergency Physician
Summer is right around the corner, and for many of us, pool season is officially here! Whether your family is off to the local water park or lounging poolside in the backyard, this hot weather pastime can bring loads of fun and excitement. It can also pose some risks if proper precautions are not taken, so let’s discuss some crucial hallmarks of pool safety and have ourselves a safe and happy summer.
First and Foremost: Water Safety
I will never not talk about necessary safeguards to prevent accidental drowning. It’s an evergreen topic that always merits review because it can literally save lives. So, keep these in mind as you prepare your little ones for splashy fun:
No child should be alone in or next to a pool, no matter how shallow. A child can drown in as little as six inches of water if they are submerged. Practice ‘touch supervision’: this means more than simply “keeping a close eye” on your child. It means keeping your young child within arm’s reach near any type of water. Accidents happen even to strong swimmers, so supervision – preferably by a certified lifeguard – is always the safest option. Assign a “water watcher”- an adult whose only job is to keep an eye on those in and around the water. This is especially important in a group setting like a cookout where it’s easy to assume that someone else is keeping an eye on the kids.
Not all flotation devices should be trusted. Personal floatation devices (PFDs) should be selected based on the child’s size, swimming ability, and where they’ll be swimming (shallow pool vs lake or ocean). Floaties or “water wings” can give a false sense of security because they are not life-saving. Check out this resource for selecting the right PFD, provided by the US Coast Guard.
Swimming is an important life skill, as well as a great source of recreation and exercise. If possible, all children should be enrolled in swimming classes or taught how to swim by a skilled adult as early as they are comfortable being in the water.
A 4-foot-high fence with a locked gate should be around every swimming pool. This is an extra safety barrier so that even if a child exited the house unnoticed, it would still be difficult for them to access the pool.
Other Poolside Concerns
Drowning remains the most vital pool safety hazard, but there are plenty of other ways to get injured at the pool. All of these are easily prevented with proper precautions and common sense.
Foot, Ankle, and Other Bodily Injuries
This one is usually prevented by slowing down and following posted pool rules. Those “no running” warnings are there for a reason – slipping on wet pavement can be a quick way to end up in urgent care or emergency department. Likewise, watch out for the “no diving” signs at the side of the pool as they indicate shallow water. Entering the pool head-first in these areas can lead to serious spine or head trauma. Talk to your kids about the importance of these posted regulations and model following them at all times.
Heat Exposure and Barefoot Burns
Heat exhaustion is a serious condition caused by prolonged exposure to hot and humid weather conditions that can lead to dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, and in severe cases, heatstroke. The tricky thing about it is that it happens gradually, so it can be difficult to catch if your family is spending the whole day outside by the pool. Symptoms to watch for may include excessive sweating, dizziness, weakness, nausea, headache, muscle cramps, and fatigue. Avoid heat exhaustion by encouraging children to drink plenty of fluids and stay in the shade.
Another heat-related concern is barefoot burns. On some days, the poolside pavement can get extremely hot very quickly. Children’s feet are usually more sensitive than adults’, so it’s important to protect them from getting burned by wearing flip flops or water shoes. (Be careful with those flip flops, though – definitely no running to avoid stumbling and injury!)
Chloramines and Bodily Fluid Contaminants
Accidents happen – whether it’s a kid still getting the hang of potty training or a tired swimmer accidentally swallowing too much water, bodily fluid like poop, pee, and vomit are all possible in both public and private pools. This is why chlorine is used to kill germs and bacteria, preventing the spread of disease. However, when chlorine binds with body waste, it can form chloramines: chemicals that irritate skin, eyes, and respiratory tract. That being said, pool chemicals typically do not cause serious injury.
The best way to avoid exposure to either bodily fluid contamination or chemical irritants is to carefully watch the pool for waste before getting in and talking to children about not relieving themselves in the pool. If an accident happens in a private pool, try to clean it up as quickly as possible; in a public pool, make sure to alert a staff member as soon as you see an issue.
Poolside fun is an essential summer activity, and the best way to enjoy it is to avoid unnecessary injuries and complications. The good news is that all the potential hazards I’ve talked about are easily avoided. With a bit of foresight and informed planning, we can all have a great time splashing around in the water!