Federal public health officials are urging people to take precautions to protect themselves against a microscopic parasite that can live for days in swimming pools and water playgrounds and cause severe intestinal problems.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a report last week about the increased number of outbreaks caused by the fecal parasite Cryptosporidium, more commonly known as "Crypto".

The parasite, a common cause of water-related disease outbreaks across the United States, causes cryptosporidiosis, a disease characterized by nausea, vomiting and "watery diarrhea" that can last for weeks, according to the CDC.

Although most cases do not require medical treatment, public health experts warn the parasite may pose a greater risk to people who are especially young or old or who have compromised immune systems and are at increased risk for "life-threatening malnutrition".

The warning came from the CDC's recent Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which highlighted an average 13 percent increase in cryptosporidiosis outbreaks each year from 2009 to 2017.

The CDC said that over the past decade, there have been more than 400 reported outbreaks in the United States, leading to nearly 7,500 people becoming sick. Of those, more than 200 people were hospitalized, and one person died as a result of the disease, according to the report.

The most common cause of the outbreaks was swallowing contaminated water from recreational places, researchers said.

In about 35 percent of the outbreaks, sicknesses were linked to swimming pools and playgrounds, according to the report. Contact with infected cattle accounted for about 15 percent, and contact with infected people in child-care settings accounted for about 13 percent, according to the report.

Michele Hlavsa, who heads the CDC's Healthy Swimming Program, said in a news release last week that "young children can get seriously sick and easily spread Crypto."

"They don't know how to use the toilet and wash their hands, or are just learning how," she said. "But we as parents can take steps to help keep our kids healthy in the water, around animals, and in child care."

Cryptosporidium lives in the intestines of infected people and animals who shed a form of the parasite in their feces, according to the CDC.

Public health experts say that even trace amounts of infected fecal matter on hands or swimsuits can contaminate food, beverages or swimming pools - and others who ingest it can become infected, as well.

Symptoms of cryptosporidiosis usually start to occur within about 2 to 10 days after acquiring the infection, according to the CDC. In addition to diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, other symptoms may include fever, stomach pain, dehydration and weight loss.

Bobbi Pritt, a physician and co-director of Vector-Borne Diseases Lab Services at the Mayo Clinic, said the parasite is endemic to the United States and can infect people in swimming pools because the parasite can survive even treated water with its resistance to chlorine and some chemicals.

She said people with diarrhea should not go in the pool, and those in the pool should avoid swallowing water.

Pritt added that livestock can also be infected with the parasite, so people visiting zoos or county fairs should wash their hands thoroughly after handling animals.

Other precautions include keeping sick children with diarrhea away from the water as well as from child-care facilities; washing hands with soap, not hand sanitizers; and removing shoes around livestock before entering your home, according to the CDC.

2019 © The Washington Post

This article was originally published by The Washington Post.