Water can make you sick

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Joshua Suggs
  • AEDC Medical Aid Station
In the words of the Dave Matthews Band, "Don't drink the water" until you disinfect it.

The water that you drink from the faucet is treated usually through a filtration and chlorination processes to make it safe to consume. With the weather becoming warmer more people tend to do outside activities. There are times that you may run out of drinking water doing things such as camping or hiking.

You see a body of water and decide that you will get a drink to quench your thirst. Not so fast. That water may contain contaminants that can make you sick to include cryptosporidium, giardia lamblia, viruses, coliforms (fecal coliform). These contaminants cause gastrointestinal illness such as diarrhea, vomiting and cramps and may be caused by human and animal fecal waste in the water source.

Even in fast moving streams there is still a chance that someone who drinks the water can get sick, especially, if you are unaware of the possible contaminants upstream.

There are, however, some ways to make the water safe to drink. Nothing will work perfectly 100 percent of the time, but the methods below will make sure that you have a better chance of not getting sick than doing nothing at all.

Travelers who are camping, hiking, or staying in remote areas may need to disinfect their drinking water. Several methods can be used.


Most germs die quickly at high temperatures. Water that has been boiled for one minute is safe to drink after it has cooled.


A variety of filters are available from camping stores. Most have filter sizes between 0.1 and 0.4 microns, which will remove bacteria from water but will not remove viruses. New hollow fiber technology can remove viruses as well. Reverse osmosis filters remove bacteria and viruses and can also remove salt from water, which is important for ocean voyagers.


Tablets or packets of powder can be bought at camping stores to disinfect water. These usually combine chemical disinfectants such as chlorine or iodine with a substance that makes the water clear and improves its taste. Follow the instructions on the package closely - you may need to wait several hours until all the germs are killed before consuming.

Ultraviolet (UV) Light

Portable units that deliver a measured dose of UV light are an effective way to disinfect small quantities of clear water. However, this technique is less effective in cloudy water since germs may be shielded from the light by small particles.

Solar Radiation

In an emergency situation, water can be disinfected with sunlight. Water in a clear plastic bottle, preferably lying on a reflective surface such as aluminum foil, will be safe to drink after a minimum of 6 hours in bright sunlight. This technique does not work on cloudy water.

For more information visit the Center for Disease (CDC) website at wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/page/water-disinfection or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website at www.epa.gov.