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Here's What Pediatricians *Really* Want You To Know About Water Parks

Summer is upon us, which means families everywhere are gearing up for all kinds of fun summer activities. Camping, the beach, and of course, a summer favorite — trips to the water park. While water parks are fun for both kids and adults, and it's certainly a great way to keep the kids cool (and out of the house) on a hot summer day, there are some water park tips from pediatricians that parents should be aware of when it comes to keeping kids safe this season.

I checked in with Chief Medical Officer of Hazel Health, Dr. Rob Darzynkiewicz, pediatrician Dr. Brian Nguyen of Dignity Health Medical Foundation, and Dr. Dean Jacobs of MemorialCare Medical Group to see what parents need to be on the look out for when they visit the water park. Most of these tips may seem like common sense, but sometimes it helps to understand the reason behind rules. While it might be obvious why we have rules such as "don't pee in the pool," did you also know that chlorine doesn't kill all germs? Understanding the reasoning behind these tips may help you enforce the rules and help your kids understand them so they're more likely to follow.

Water park injuries and illnesses are also quite common, so you need to pay attention. Dr. Nguyen says some of the most common water park injuries and illnesses that he sees in his office include, "heat exhaustion, dehydration, recreational water illnesses (most commonly diarrhea), rashes, acute otitis externa (swimmer’s ear), scrapes/cuts, bruises, and a variety of musculoskeletal complaints like sprains or fractures. Although rare, concussions and drowning incidents can and do occur as well." If you're already freaking out and rethinking that trip, don't cancel your plans just yet. The expert tips below will help keep your family safe so you can enjoy the water park with as little stress as possible — when you're a mom, anyway. Don't forget the towels.


Don't Forget The Sunscreen

This may seem obvious, but what many parents forget is how often sunscreen needs to be applied in order to avoid getting a sunburn. Dr. Jacobs says, "For babies less than 6 months old, keep them out of direct sunlight in a shaded area. For children 6 months and up, be sure to use broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 to 50. Reapply the sunscreen on your child at least every two hours, along with after swimming or drying off with a towel."

Parents also need to remember to put on sunscreen even if it's cloudy, noted Dr. Nguyen. "Also, remember that you need sunscreen whether it is sunny or cloudy. Make sure your sunscreen is waterproof, at least SPF 30, and has protection against both UVA and UVB rays."


Know Your Child

Water parks can get crowded, so if you know that your child is a wanderer, make sure you keep an eye on them and set some rules in place. A child who isn't a strong swimmer should be kept close as well. If you're a parent of a child with special needs, Dr. Nguyen says they "should have personalized anticipatory guidance related to drowning risks. Kids with epilepsy, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and cardiac arrhythmias are at particular risk. When swimming or showering, children with epilepsy should be supervised closely by an adult at all times. Children with poorly controlled seizures should discuss water safety with their pediatrician or neurologist before any swim or water park-related activities." You don't have to skip the trip to the water park, but get a plan in place if your child may need some extra care.


Wear Water Shoes Or Sandals

Protective footwear can help keep germs off kids' feet, as well as help them keep traction while walking along wet surfaces. "Slippery surfaces can lead to injuries when an excited kid slips and falls while running upstairs or between water activities, so be sure to remind your child to walk at all times and consider getting your child water shoes," Dr. Jacobs says.


Chlorine Does Not Mean Germ-Free

This one is a rude awakening for a lot of parents. Just because a pool is treated with chlorine doesn't mean there are no germs. Dr. Rob says, "Chlorinated water is not germ-free water. Certain bacteria can still survive for a considerable time in chlorinated water and cause your child to get irritated or infected eyes (conjunctivitis), skin rashes (dermatitis or folliculitis), coughing fits (bronchitis), or diarrhea (infectious diarrhea)." Which is why it's best to have your child shower when they get out of the water, and tell them never to swallow the pool water.

Dr. Jacobs confirms this and says, "A common myth is that chlorine kills everything, but unfortunately this just isn’t true. Germs and diseases do exist at water parks, and can lead to recreational water illnesses such as norovirus, E. coli, Cryptosporidium, and Giardia. While the most common infections are gastrointestinal with diarrhea, other skin infections, eye infections, and ear infections can also occur."


Bring Extra Water

I know it sounds obvious, but it's easily forgotten just how easy it is to become dehydrated when out in the sun, even in water. This one is important for parents as well as children. Dr. Nguyen says, "To help prevent dehydration and/or heat-related illnesses at the water park, drink plenty of bottled or filtered fluids/water — avoid drinks with sweeteners or caffeine. If you feel confused, dizzy, or have nausea or vomiting, ask for help right away."


Don't Forget Your Child's Flotation Device

If your child isn't a strong swimmer, make sure to bring their life jacket or other reliable floating device. Dr. Nguyen says, "If children cannot swim or are less than 4 feet tall, they should be wearing a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket."

But even with their life jacket, you still need to keep them close, just in case. Dr. Jacobs says parents should "get in the water with them to ensure they are always within arm’s reach."


Always Be On The Lookout

Accidents can happen in an instant, so it's important for parents to not be distracted. Remember: drowning doesn't always look like drowning. "True drowning is not like what we picture (arms thrashing and screaming for help). It is often a child silently trying desperately to keep their head above water," Dr. Rob warns.


Water Park Rides Are Not Created Equal

Show your child which rides are safe for them to go on and which ones they should stay away from. "A crowded wave pool is much different than the three-foot deep lazy river. Although lifeguards are specially trained at water parks, you want to make sure your child is playing in the appropriate part of the park," Dr. Rob says. Talk about the areas that are safe for your child, and make sure you're always within arm's reach.


Discuss Safety Rules

Discuss important safety rules with your children before leaving for the park, and review them when you arrive. Enforce the rules by creating consequences if the rules are not followed. Important rules include: "Don't pee in the pool, don't swallow water, know what water park rides are safe for them, and to use a buddy system," Dr. Rob suggests.

For smaller kids, it's especially important to have a buddy or to be with a parent at all time, but older more self-sufficient children may want to go off on their own. Dr. Jacobs says, "Even with teens, at the very least, make sure they have a buddy with them at all times. It’s also a good idea to remind them to follow park rules about going feet first down water slides and not diving into shallow water — rules designed to help prevent serious spinal injuries."

You also need to have a plan if something goes wrong or someone gets separated from the group. Dr. Nguyen adds, "establish a meeting place if someone gets lost," which can be a helpful tip in crowded places. Pick a significant landmark that younger kids will be able to spot if they get lost, and make sure they know how to find an employee.


Take Swim Breaks

It's hard to remember to stop for a break when you're having fun, but Dr. Rob says, "Take a time out every hour for 10 minutes. This is a great time for them to go to the bathroom (and wash hands after), apply more sunscreen, drink some water, and hear about what fun they are having at the park and what rides they are riding. It is a perfect time for pictures as well."


Practice Healthy Swimming

Both parents and kids should practice "healthy swimming" while visiting the water park to protect themselves and others. "If your child is not healthy (for example, sick with diarrhea) wait several days until you go — don't get everyone else sick," Dr. Rob says. "Have your kids shower before entering the pool to remove dirt or anything else from their bodies, and after they finish swimming to remove remaining dirt and bacteria. For younger kids, have them wear a water diaper and check it and change it often. Wash their bottom with soap and water when changing. And do it in the bathroom, not by the pool."

Some illnesses are resistant to chlorines, so Dr. Nguyen says, "For patients with cryptosporidiosis, don’t swim for an additional two weeks after diarrhea has resolved. Cryptosporidium is chlorine tolerant and can persist in treated water with the current recommended levels of chlorine for more than 10 days."

If your child is prone to ear infections or swimmer's ear, you can reduce their risk for developing discomfort by, "keeping ears as dry as possible [by] drying ears thoroughly after swimming," says Dr. Nguyen.


Don't Rely On The Lifeguard

Water parks usually have lifeguards on duty who are trained to respond to any incidents, but don't put all your faith in them. Instead, keep an eye on your kids. Dr. Jacobs says, "Even with lifeguards around, the most important thing for you as a parent is to focus on water safety. Drowning is the number one cause of injury death in children ages 1 to 4, drowning is usually quick and silent, and young children can drown in as little as an inch of water," so it's best that you are able to see and/or touch your child at all times.


Make Sure Everyone Is Water Competent

Even if your child is an inexperienced swimmer, they can still be competent when it comes to water safety. Dr. Nguyen says, "My first and most important tip for families headed out to water parks this summer is to make sure that everyone in the family becomes water competent — which is the ability to anticipate, avoid, and survive common drowning situations. Water competency includes water-safety awareness, basic swim skills, and the ability to recognize and respond to a swimmer in trouble. This knowledge is particularly important if you are planning to participate in attractions like wave pools, lazy rivers, or slides that end in a pool." As a parent, it might be a good idea to take a course in CPR or lifeguarding if you plan to spend a lot of time near water this summer. Making the extra effort to educate yourself and your kids could be well worth it one day.


Don't Forget To Monitor The Weather

In some areas, weather can change in an instant, making water activities go from being super fun to incredibly dangerous. Dr. Nguyen says, "Depending on where you live, you may need to monitor the weather before going to the water park. Avoid the water at the first signs of lightning or thunder." If you see any signs of lightning, take the kids and yourself out of the water and get inside. The fun can resume when the weather passes.