Frequently Asked Questions


Q. What causes my local health department to issue an advisory recommending against swimming and water sports?

A. Swimming in natural water bodies is not risk-free. If your local health department has issued an advisory, it is a warning to those using the water that enterococci or e. coli results have exceeded the acceptable level. Also, if spills, leaks or other problems are known to have entered the water, your local health department will advise that people not swim there.

Q. What are enterococci and e. coli?

A. Enterococci and e. coli are bacteria that are found in the intestine of all warm-blooded animals, including humans. Because these bacteria are easy to detect and commonly found in animal and human waste, they are used as indicators of recreational water quality conditions. Enterococci and e. coli are the organisms recommended by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to measure fecal contamination in recreational water.

Q. What Are Vibrio bacteria?

A. Vibrios are bacteria that occur naturally in estuarine and marine waters worldwide. Click here for details.

Q. Can I swim or wade in the water when an advisory is posted?

A. It is recommended that you not swim or wade in the water. Risk of illness comes from contacting beach water in several ways. These include ingesting natural water, getting water in the nose, eyes, and ears, or in an open wound. If one has an open wound on the lower legs or feet, it could become infected even from wading.

Q. Is it OK to eat crabs and fish from an area that is under advisory or closed to swimming?

A. Because cooking kills bacteria and viruses, it’s generally okay to eat crabs and fish taken from these areas as long as they are handled properly. Fish should be washed with freshwater, kept in a cool place on ice and then cooked thoroughly. Live crabs should be thoroughly cooked. After cooking, neither the crabs nor fish should come back into contact with any surfaces or containers in which they were kept uncooked.

Q. Are the beaches closed when there is an advisory?

A. The beaches are not closed, however we recommend that you do not swim in the water.

Q. When will the local health department lift an advisory or closure?

A. An area may be reopened after results are back to normal.The acceptable level is determined by the State, USEPA and local health departments.

Q. What kinds of health risks are associated with swimming and other recreational water contact?

A. Natural bodies of water can contain bacteria, viruses or other harmful microorganisms. Swimmer’s ear, an infection of the outer ear, is the most common problem, but other water related illnesses can be acquired by accidentally swallowing contaminated water. Disease causing microorganisms can also enter the body through cuts and scrapes. You can find out more at the Center For Disease Control and Prevention’s website.

Q. What precautions should you take before swimming in area creeks and rivers?

A. Avoid swimming after a heavy rain, and wait about 48 hours or until the water clears. Avoid swimming near storm drains along the beach. Look for trash and other signs of pollution such as oil slicks or scum on the water. These kinds of pollutants may indicate the presence of disease causing microorganisms that may also have been washed into the water. Don’t swim if you have an ear infection, perforated eardrum, open cuts, skin lesions or a weakened immunity.

Q. What should I do after coming in contact with natural bodies of water?

A. Shower and wash your hands well with soap and warm water soon after swimming and before eating.

Q. How can I prevent illnesses when crabbing and fishing?

A. Assure proper bandaging and care of wounds or abrasions. Wear sturdy gloves with any contact you have with water and sharp objects (fish fins and scales, boating equipment, etc.). Keep hands as clean as you can. Waterless hand cleansers kill many germs and are easier on the skin than constant hand washing.

Q. What if I or someone I know has been exposed to harmful algae?

A. If you have questions about the health effects of harmful algae, or you think you or someone you know is having health problems that could be related to harmful algae, please contact the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's Environmental Health Coordination Program toll-free at (866) 703-3266, or see the program web page for more information. You can also contact your local health department.