Waterborne Diseases: List, Symptoms, and Prevention Advice

Water is essential to the health of all living species, but can also pose a threat when it’s contaminated. Learn about common waterborne diseases including symptoms and prevention tips.

By: Maggie Pace

Although the United States treats water to make it safer, the CDC found that nearly 7.2 million Americans get sick from diseases spread through water each year. Common waterborne diseases include cholera, typhoid fever, and dysentery among others that you may or may not know about.

These diseases present a serious threat to your health, but over 95% of them are preventable — so learning about them can help reduce you and your family’s risk of infection. To help you prevent infection, we’ve created this guide with important info about the most common waterborne diseases.

"...the CDC found that nearly 7.2 million Americans get sick from diseases spread through water each year."

What are waterborne diseases?

Waterborne diseases are illnesses caused by consumption or exposure to contaminated water that contains bacteria, viruses, or parasites. People and animals can be infected with a waterborne disease through several ways such as:

  • Drinking or eating contaminated food or beverages
  • Swallowing water from a contaminated lake, river, or ocean
  • Bathing or washing with contaminated water
  • Person-to-person spread through water droplets
  • Contact with contaminated animals or their environment

Understanding how waterborne diseases infect people and animals is the first step towards prevention, as you can take safeguards to minimize your risk from these situations. However, it’s also a good idea to know the most common waterborne diseases including their symptoms so you can recognize and treat an infection early if it does occur.

Waterborne diseases list and symptoms

There are at least 29 known waterborne diseases, but some of these are more common and dangerous than others. It’s a good idea to check which waterborne diseases are most common where you live, or in an area you plan on traveling to. Here are some of the most common and concerning waterborne diseases to be aware of.

1. Giardiasis

Giardasis, also called “Giardia”, is an intestinal infection with symptoms that include stomach cramps, bloating, nausea, and diarrhea. The disease is caused by a microscopic parasite that is present across the world, and it’s one of the most common waterborne diseases in the United States. 

It may be found in public water supplies, pools, spas, and private wells. The parasite is protected by an outer shell that allows it to survive for weeks or months, and it spreads easily by contaminating anything it touches. The infection usually clears in 2-6 weeks, but exposed individuals may experience intestinal problems for years after the parasite is gone. There are medications to help treat a giardiasis infection, but not everyone responds to them so prevention is the best defense.

2. Cryptosporidiosis

Cryptosporidiosis, also called “Crypto”, is a disease caused by the parasite Cryptosporidium with symptoms that include diarrhea, stomach cramps, loss of appetite, vomiting, and fever. It can be found in soil, food, water, and surfaces that have been contaminated by the feces of infected people or animals, although it’s most frequently spread through water. In fact, Cryptosporidiosis is the most common cause of recreational water illness outbreaks in the United States. The infection will usually last between 1-2 weeks, and most people with a healthy immune system do not need additional treatment. 

3. Cholera

Cholera is an intestinal illness with symptoms that include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, thirst, and muscle cramps. In some cases, the symptoms may be mild or non-existent, but 1 in 10 infected individuals will experience life-threatening symptoms. Like many other waterborne diseases, cholera bacterium is typically found in water or foods that have been contaminated with feces from an infected individual. The disease is most likely to occur in places with inadequate water treatment and sanitation, so it may be picked up when traveling.

Symptoms will typically appear 2-3 days after exposure, but the bacteria will usually disappear from the gastrointestinal system within 2 weeks as long as the individual gets plenty of fluid and salt replacement while they recover.

4. Typhoid Fever

Typhoid fever is a disease caused by Salmonella Typhi bacteria, with symptoms that include a high fever, headache, stomach pain, and constipation or diarrhea. The disease is rare in developed countries, but is a serious threat in developing nations which creates a heightened risk for travelers. The bacteria contaminates everything it touches, so the disease spreads easily and is especially a risk in areas with inadequate hand washing practices. Travelers may get sick from contaminated food or beverages without their knowledge, so before going on a trip it’s a good idea to see if a typhoid vaccination is recommended. The vaccine is 50-80% effective, so you’ll still want to be careful about what you eat, drink, and how you wash your hands.

If you are infected, symptoms of typhoid fever will usually appear within 1-2 weeks. Antibiotics can be prescribed to help resolve symptoms within 3-5 days, but if left untreated, the disease will usually last several weeks and could present life-threatening complications. 

5. Dysentery

Dysentery is an intestinal infection caused by a parasite or bacteria that is associated with bloody diarrhea or mucus, fever, cramps, nausea, and vomiting. There are two types of dysentery, bacillary dysentery is the most common within the U.S. and comes from the bacteria Shigella. The other type is amoebic dysentery, which comes from a parasite called Entamoeba histolytica and is more likely to be contracted when traveling. 

Dysentery will typically resolve on its own within 3-7 days, but it’s important to drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. For severe symptoms, you may be able to get painkillers prescribed. While sick, you should thoroughly wash your hands and stay away from others to avoid passing the infection onto others. The best method of prevention is by good hand washing practices.

How to prevent waterborne diseases

Most waterborne diseases can be prevented by taking a few basic precautions, and some may also help you avoid getting sick from other types of infections.

Best practices for preventing waterborne diseases include:

  • Use Good Environmental Management: At home, make sure to clean often and adequately to disinfect surfaces. While in new or unfamiliar areas, be cautious about where you step and what you touch.
  • Practice Good Personal Hygiene: Wash your hands thoroughly after using a toilet, contact with animals, outdoor activities, and food preparation or eating. When washing hands, make sure to use plenty of soap and scrub under water for at least 20 seconds. It’s recommended to supervise children’s handwashing to ensure they cover all surfaces on their hands.
  • Take Food Safety Precautions: When preparing food, make sure to wash and/or peel all raw produce and thoroughly cook all meat to an appropriate temperature. If you’re experiencing any symptoms of a waterborne illness, avoid preparing food for others until 48 hours after you recover. When eating out or traveling, be cautious of the environment of the place serving food and consider eating elsewhere if you suspect unsanitary conditions.
  • Be Careful About the Water You Use: Within your home, consider installing a water filter to remove contaminants that could be dangerous to your health. When looking at systems, make sure it’s tested and certified by an unaffiliated third-party organization such as NSF, WQA, or IAPMO. In addition to making your water safer, systems can also improve overall quality including taste, appearance, and smell — so it’s more enjoyable to drink.

When traveling, consider bringing a water bottle with a built-in filter such as our Stainless Steel Insulated Clean Water Bottle and be cautious about the water you use for other activities outside of drinking.


Stainless Steel Insulated Clean Water Bottle

Remove up to 99% of bacteria, lead, chlorine, cryptosporidium, and giardia from tap water. Simply fill and enjoy.