It’s the question we get asked all the time as paddlers. The answer is “pretty good, actually. Most of the time”.

Like anything worthwhile though there is a degree of risk. Let’s take a look one of the main ones – waterboune diseases. Yuck!

While the idea of even discussing this stuff might put some off getting on the water, we think a little bit of education can dramatically reduce the risk of ever picking up any of these beauties, and also encourage more people to get involved in campaigning to further clean up the waterways and coast. More on this later, but to start with, what are we talking about when we talk about waterbourne diseases?

Quite simply, we’re talking about infections or viruses that can enter the body through ingestion or damaged skin. The most common things to look out for in the UK are e-coli, blue-green algae, weil’s disease and hepatitis A.

How likely am I to get ill, and what can I do to reduce the risk?

Luckily, the likelihood of picking up a waterboune illness is extremely small. Particularly if you cover cuts and avoid drinking water. Protecting damaged skin and washing hands before eating are the best measures. There are plenty of tales about drinking coke after paddling – the idea being the acid kills any pathogens. I’m not sure of the merit of this, but if it helps you get on the water we’re all for it!


Ecoli in the waterway could come from boats pumping out or a combined sewer overflow (CSO). Some waterways (like Bristol) are monitored regularly which makes it nice and easy (we keep a close eye on this), while most are left to you. Generally high and prolonged rainfall increases the chance of a CSO release, and the resulting increase in e-coli levels. There are several high profile campaigns working on forcing water companies to stop the practice of releasing raw untreated sewage into waterways and coastlines. If you’d like to get involved contact Surfers Against Sewage.

Blue-green algae

Blue-green algae is a group of bacteria that form in still or very slow moving water such as lakes, ponds and canals during periods of hot weather. It clumps together to give the appearance of blue/green algae (hence the name). The colour helps with identification meaning it is easier to avoid.  In humans it can cause pneumonia, liver damage and other issues; you should see a doctor straight away if you think you may have entered water containing blue-green algae. Places that are prone to this usually have signs up to warn water users.

Weil’s disease

This is the big one that many people are terrified of, particularly as it can lead to death in extreme cases. Weil’s disease gives very flu-like symptoms which can occur at any time up to approximately 3 weeks after contraction. It is caught from exposure to infected animal urine. Most often contraction occurs from launching water crafts and having contact with river banks, slip ways or pontoons near the water. It’s very rarely contracted but because the disease is so serious but symptoms are flu-like we always recommend getting checked out if you’ve been paddling recently and pick up a bad flu. Let your doctor know where you’ve been paddling and insist on a test for Weil’s disease.

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A can be caught from paddling in areas that have sewage discharge in the waters (gross!)  This can be either from outlets and sewage dumping as well as heavy rainfall and flooding moving everything into the waterways.  

Reducing Risk

Before heading out paddleboarding, you should always check the current water conditions as well as trying to find local knowledge on the area. High water levels can mean CSO releases and dirty water, as well as overland flow from farms and cities, carrying with them effluent. Remember to cover any cuts with waterproof dressings; drink from a water bottle with an enclosed drinking spout or lid and wash down yourself and all equipment after being on the water.  Washing equipment is really important to ensure disease doesn’t get carried to the next place you paddle and cause cross-contamination.

Finally, don’t let this stop you getting out on the water

Please remember that while we need to think about this sort of thing, the risk really is very slim and can be controlled with a little thought before you get on the water. So don’t let it stop you getting out there! And if you do decide you want to do something to help improve the situation for future generations Surfers Against Sewage would be a great place to start.