Vacationer beware: Hot tubs, pools may harbor many germs

Summer is near, and families across the country are starting to dive into swimming pools. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that illnesses from pools and hot tubs are on the rise.

TODAY national investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen and his team took samples from pools and hot tubs at five top hotel chains and sent them to a certified laboratory for analysis. 

Although the team found visible dirt, mystery debris and hair in one hotel pool, the lab report brought surprising good news: no dangerous bacteria in any of the pools. But when Rossen's team tested a hot tub, they found total coliform and enterococcus — in plain English, fecal matter.

"It means someone went to the bathroom, then got in the pool, or went to the bathroom in the pool," said Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency room physician at New York's Lenox Hill Hospital with whom TODAY shared the results. "Two bad situations at best."

Unfortunately, it can't be assumed that the chemicals and chlorine in the pools kill the bacteria. "They do to an extent, but not completely," Glatter said. "So the bacteria can actually still thrive in the warm environment. And it's actually where they thrive best."

In another hot tub, the Rossen team found something called pseudomonas. From it, Glatter explained, "you can get a bad infection called a hot tub rash" even after just a few minutes in the tub.

Allen Elder knows just how dangerous dirty hot tubs can be: One quick dip in a hot tub at a Colorado gym sent him to the hospital. "A doctor came in and he said, 'You've got Legionnaires' disease,'" Elder recalled. "And I'm like, 'What's that?'"

It's a deadly form of pneumonia. Suddenly Elder was fighting for his life. "It was my time of relaxation and I had absolutely no idea I was sitting there breathing in the mist, which was contaminated," he said.

In all, the Rossen team tested five hot tubs. All of them came back with bacteria counts in the millions, two of them with dangerous germs.

The hotel industry urges all employees to clean pools and hot tubs often, and test the pH levels at least twice a day. To protect yourself from potential illness when swimming or hot-tubbing:

  • Wash your hands and rinse off before you jump into the water. The cleaner you are, the less bacteria you could spread around. 
  • Take your children on bathroom breaks every 60 minutes.
  • If you're really worried, you can buy a test kit yourself for around $10. You get test results right on the spot about chemicals in the pool.

To suggest a topic for an upcoming investigation, visit the Rossen Reports Facebook page.