Health experts weigh in on preventing bacterial infections from swimming in fresh water

GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. -- With posts swirling on social media about a 15-year-old boy's experience with a severe bacterial infection from swimming in Weiss Lake, parents are concerned, wondering what they should do to prevent a similar situation from happening to their children.

Keegan Knowles recovered from surgery Tuesday after getting a large cut and bacterial infection while swimming in Weiss Lake.  The teen had to get 20 stitches from the cut he got while wading in the lake. Later, doctors determined he contracted Aeromonas hydrophila, which can lead to destructive soft tissue infections. Keegan spent more than a week in the hospital. A gofundme account is set up for his medical needs.

Bacterial infections from lakes aren't new and they are not widespread. Officials with the Alabama Department of Public Health say there is bacteria in every lake, and say some bacteria can cause worse infections than others. State and local leaders say Weiss Lake is safe for swimmers.

One thing health experts stress: to prevent infection, take precautions. "Importantly, if there is an open wound, really it's best just to not get in fresh water, but if you do make sure it covered with a waterproof adhesive bandage," explained Dr. Kathryn Pettit, who works at Family Medical Center at Marshall Medical Center North.

Dr. Pettit adds if you or your child get a cut while swimming in fresh water, immediately flush the wound. "Cleanse it really well with soap and water and stay out of the water from that point forward. If you see anything that is concerning over the next few days, redness, fevers, chills, discharge from the wound, then you would want to go see your healthcare provider," Dr. Pettit continued.

Avoid getting the water up your nose or swallowing it.

"It's important to remember that your risk of developing an infection is really low. Obviously, an open wound increases that risk," Dr. Pettit said, "Children, pregnant women, people who are immunocompromised, cancer patients on chemotherapy, HIV patients, they're at a higher risk as well of developing a waterborne illness."

Officials with the Alabama Department of Public Health say if there are any concerns about any body of water, the public would be notified about it.

Testing

Some facilities test lakes and bodies of water routinely, looking for substances that could be harmful.

"That's our job, is to be sure the water is safe, ensure the water is safe for our customers. That's our number one job as certified operators," said Chief Plant Operator James Conn.

Conn runs the Sunset Water Treatment Plant in Guntersville. State regulations require they test the water coming into the plant from Lake Guntersville every day as part of the job. Crews do hundreds of tests on site and at an outside lab. Officials also test for various bacteria every two weeks.

"Many, many [tests] for harmful chemicals. We check that. Professional labs, we send it to them and they send the results back to us," Conn said. Anything out of the ordinary or higher than recommended would be immediately reported.

Experts with the Tennessee Valley Authority continually monitor reservoir health and test on a regular basis. They run tests for aquatic health, which in turn, makes sure the water systems are safe for recreational use.