Published On
Nov 2, 2023

Common Symptoms of Waterborne Illness

Discover the symptoms of waterborne illness and when to seek medical attention. Stay informed and stay healthy!

Waterborne Illness: An Overview

Waterborne illnesses are a significant public health concern, affecting individuals worldwide. Understanding the basics of waterborne illness and their common causes is essential for safeguarding one's health.

Understanding Waterborne Illness

Waterborne illnesses are a serious concern in today's world. Every year, millions of people suffer from illnesses caused by consuming or coming into contact with contaminated water. These illnesses can be caused by various pathogens, including bacteria, viruses, and parasites. When these harmful microorganisms enter the body through contaminated water sources, they can lead to a range of health issues, from mild gastrointestinal discomfort to life-threatening illnesses.

Contaminated water sources can include drinking water, swimming pools, lakes, rivers, or even tap water in some cases. It's important to note that waterborne illnesses are not limited to developing countries and can occur anywhere, even in areas with advanced water treatment systems. In fact, outbreaks of waterborne illnesses have occurred in some of the most developed countries in the world, highlighting the importance of proper water treatment and sanitation practices.

Preventing waterborne illnesses requires a multi-faceted approach. Individuals can take steps to protect themselves by avoiding contact with contaminated water, properly treating their drinking water, and practicing good hygiene. Governments and public health organizations also play an important role in preventing waterborne illnesses by monitoring water quality, implementing and enforcing regulations, and educating the public on proper sanitation practices.

By taking these steps, we can work together to reduce the incidence of waterborne illnesses and ensure that everyone has access to safe, clean water.

Common Causes of Waterborne Illness

Waterborne illnesses can occur due to a variety of causes. Here are some common ways in which water becomes contaminated:

  1. Sewage and wastewater: When sewage and wastewater systems are not properly treated or managed, they can contaminate water sources and contribute to the spread of waterborne diseases. This is particularly common in areas with inadequate sanitation infrastructure.
  2. Animal and human feces: The presence of animal or human feces in water sources can introduce harmful pathogens. This can happen when waste from livestock or humans enters rivers, lakes, or underground water supplies.
  3. Agricultural runoff: The use of fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals in agriculture can lead to runoff that contaminates nearby water sources. These contaminants can include harmful bacteria, viruses, or chemicals that pose a risk to human health.
  4. Industrial pollutants: Industrial activities can release pollutants into water bodies, causing contamination. These pollutants may include heavy metals, chemicals, or toxins that can contribute to waterborne illnesses.
  5. Natural disasters: Natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, or earthquakes can disrupt water and sanitation systems, leading to contamination of water sources. This can result in the rapid spread of waterborne diseases in affected areas.

Understanding the causes of waterborne illnesses is crucial for implementing effective preventive measures and ensuring the safety of water sources.

By raising awareness about waterborne illnesses and their causes, we can take proactive steps towards protecting ourselves and our communities from the detrimental effects of contaminated water.

Symptoms of Waterborne Illness

Exposure to contaminated water sources can lead to the development of various waterborne illnesses. It's important to be aware of the common symptoms associated with these illnesses. The symptoms can vary depending on the specific type of waterborne bacteria, virus, or parasite involved. In this section, we will explore the gastrointestinal, respiratory, and skin and eye symptoms that may indicate a waterborne illness.

Gastrointestinal Symptoms

Gastrointestinal symptoms are the most common indicators of a waterborne illness. These symptoms primarily affect the digestive system and may include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea, which can be watery or bloody
  • Abdominal cramps and pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever and chills

It's important to note that the severity and duration of these symptoms can vary depending on the specific waterborne pathogen involved.

Respiratory Symptoms

In some cases, waterborne pathogens can also affect the respiratory system, leading to respiratory symptoms. These symptoms may include:

  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Sore throat
  • Wheezing

Respiratory symptoms are commonly associated with waterborne diseases such as Legionnaires' disease. If you suspect that you have been exposed to contaminated water and are experiencing respiratory symptoms, it's essential to seek medical attention promptly.

Skin and Eye Symptoms

Certain waterborne pathogens can cause skin and eye symptoms, particularly when the water comes into direct contact with these areas. Symptoms may include:

  • Skin rashes or irritation
  • Red, itchy eyes
  • Eye discharge
  • Swelling or burning sensation of the skin or eyes

These symptoms can be indicative of waterborne illnesses such as giardiasis.

If you experience any of these symptoms after exposure to potentially contaminated water, it's crucial to seek medical attention. Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment are essential for a speedy recovery.

By being aware of the symptoms associated with waterborne illnesses, you can take prompt action and protect your health. Remember, prevention is key, so ensure that you have access to clean and safe drinking water. Regular testing of water sources and taking necessary precautions can significantly reduce the risk of waterborne illness.

Specific Waterborne Illnesses and Their Symptoms

Waterborne illnesses can be caused by various pathogens and contaminants present in water sources. Understanding the specific illnesses and their symptoms is crucial for early detection and appropriate treatment. Here are three common waterborne illnesses and their associated symptoms:


Cholera is an acute intestinal infection caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. It is typically transmitted through contaminated water or food. The symptoms of cholera usually manifest within a few hours to five days after exposure. Common symptoms include:

  • Severe watery diarrhea: Cholera is characterized by profuse, painless diarrhea that resembles rice water. It can lead to rapid dehydration if left untreated.
  • Vomiting: Individuals with cholera may experience frequent episodes of vomiting, which can contribute to fluid loss and electrolyte imbalance.
  • Muscle cramps: Painful muscle cramps, particularly in the legs, can occur due to dehydration and electrolyte disturbances.
  • Dehydration: Cholera can cause severe dehydration, leading to symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, dry mouth, sunken eyes, and decreased urine output.

It's important to seek immediate medical attention if you experience these symptoms, as prompt treatment can significantly reduce the risk of complications.


Giardiasis, also known as beaver fever, is caused by the microscopic parasite Giardia lamblia. It is commonly found in untreated water sources contaminated with human or animal feces. The symptoms of giardiasis typically appear one to three weeks after infection. Common symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea: Giardiasis often leads to diarrhea that can range from mild to severe. The stool may be greasy, foul-smelling, and float in the toilet.
  • Abdominal pain: Individuals with giardiasis may experience abdominal cramps and bloating.
  • Nausea and vomiting: Some individuals may experience nausea and occasional vomiting.
  • Fatigue: Fatigue and general weakness can occur due to the body's response to the infection.
  • Weight loss: Prolonged giardiasis infection can lead to unintentional weight loss.

If you suspect giardiasis or have been in contact with potentially contaminated water, it's important to consult a healthcare professional for diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

Legionnaires' Disease

Legionnaires' disease is a severe form of pneumonia caused by the bacterium Legionella pneumophila. It is typically contracted by inhaling mist or vapor containing the bacteria. While Legionnaires' disease is not directly transmitted through water consumption, contaminated water sources such as hot tubs, cooling towers, and plumbing systems can serve as potential sources of infection. The symptoms of Legionnaires' disease usually appear within 2 to 10 days after exposure. Common symptoms include:

  • Cough: A persistent cough that may produce mucus or blood-tinged sputum is a common symptom of Legionnaires' disease.
  • Fever: Individuals with Legionnaires' disease often experience high fever, which can be accompanied by chills and sweating.
  • Shortness of breath: Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath is a hallmark symptom of Legionnaires' disease.
  • Chest pain: Some individuals may experience chest pain or tightness, which can be exacerbated by coughing or deep breathing.
  • Muscle aches: Generalized muscle aches and fatigue may be present.

If you suspect Legionnaires' disease or have been exposed to potentially contaminated water sources, seek medical attention promptly. Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial for a favorable outcome.

By understanding the specific symptoms associated with cholera, giardiasis, and Legionnaires' disease, individuals can recognize the signs of waterborne illnesses and seek appropriate medical care. Remember to take preventive measures, such as using safe and contaminant-free water sources, to minimize the risk of waterborne illnesses.

Seeking Medical Attention

If you experience symptoms of a waterborne illness, it's important to seek medical attention to ensure proper diagnosis and treatment. Knowing when to see a doctor and understanding the available diagnosis and treatment options is crucial for managing waterborne illnesses effectively.

When to See a Doctor

If you develop symptoms that may be indicative of a waterborne illness, it's recommended to consult a healthcare professional. While some mild symptoms may resolve on their own, certain cases may require medical intervention. Here are some situations in which you should consider seeking medical attention:

  1. Severe Symptoms: If you experience severe or persistent symptoms such as severe diarrhea, vomiting, high fever, difficulty breathing, or dehydration, it is important to consult a doctor immediately. These symptoms may indicate a more serious infection or complications that require medical evaluation.
  2. Immunocompromised Individuals: If you have a weakened immune system due to a medical condition or medication, you may be at a higher risk of developing severe infections. It is important to seek medical advice promptly if you experience any symptoms of a waterborne illness.
  3. Prolonged Symptoms: If your symptoms persist for an extended period, it is advisable to consult a healthcare professional. Prolonged symptoms may indicate an underlying infection or other health issues that need to be addressed.
  4. Travel History: If you have recently traveled to an area with known water contamination issues or you have been exposed to potentially contaminated water sources, it is essential to inform your healthcare provider. This information can help in determining the appropriate diagnostic tests and treatment options.

Remember, early intervention and proper medical care can help prevent complications and promote a faster recovery.

Diagnosis and Treatment Options

When you visit a healthcare professional for suspected waterborne illness, they will assess your symptoms, medical history, and any potential exposure to contaminated water. The diagnosis of a waterborne illness is typically made through a combination of clinical evaluation and laboratory tests.

  1. Clinical Evaluation: The healthcare provider will conduct a thorough physical examination and assess your symptoms to determine the most likely cause. They may ask about your travel history, recent activities, and potential sources of water contamination.
  2. Laboratory Tests: To confirm the diagnosis, your healthcare provider may order various laboratory tests. These may include stool analysis, blood tests, urine tests, or specific tests for particular waterborne pathogens. These tests help identify the specific microorganism responsible for the illness and guide appropriate treatment.

The treatment for waterborne illnesses depends on the specific pathogen involved and the severity of the symptoms. It may include:

  • Antibiotics: For bacterial infections, antibiotics may be prescribed to eliminate the infection. The specific antibiotic will depend on the type of bacteria causing the illness.
  • Antiparasitic Medications: In the case of parasitic infections, antiparasitic medications may be prescribed to target and eliminate the parasites from your body.
  • Supportive Care: To manage symptoms and ensure proper hydration, your healthcare provider may recommend supportive care measures such as rehydration therapy, over-the-counter medications to relieve symptoms, and rest.

It's important to follow the healthcare provider's instructions and complete the prescribed treatment course. Additionally, preventive measures such as ensuring access to safe drinking water, practicing good hygiene, and understanding waterborne illness prevention strategies can help reduce the risk of future infections.

By seeking medical attention promptly and receiving appropriate diagnosis and treatment, you can effectively manage waterborne illnesses and promote a speedy recovery.


In conclusion, waterborne illnesses can have serious health consequences, particularly for vulnerable populations such as young children, the elderly, and immunocompromised individuals. By understanding the symptoms associated with these illnesses and taking appropriate preventive measures, such as using safe and contaminant-free water sources, you can significantly reduce the risk of infection.

If you suspect that you have been exposed to contaminated water and are experiencing symptoms of a waterborne illness, seek medical attention promptly. Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment are crucial for managing these conditions effectively.

Remember to practice good hygiene habits such as washing your hands regularly, especially after using the bathroom or changing diapers. Additionally, regular testing of water sources and taking necessary precautions can help prevent future outbreaks of waterborne illnesses.

By staying informed about the risks associated with contaminated water sources and taking proactive steps to protect yourself and your loved ones, you can enjoy clean and safe drinking water while minimizing the risk of waterborne illnesses.


Science Direct: Waterborne Diseases

MN Department of Health: Causes and Symptoms of Waterborne Illness

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: What is Legionnaires’ disease?