April showers bring May flowers… but they also bring major gut trouble

Spring is my favorite season. Where I live, spring means birds chirping, flowers sprouting, trees budding and rain — lots and lots of rain.

We have far more rainy days than sunny ones. And while all the gray, rainy days can get to you after a while, you know they’re bringing good things — they’re nourishing all the plants and animals that make springtime so beautiful.

But with good often comes bad. And it turns out, the same spring showers that are paving the way for a lush and vibrant spring, may also be paving the way for tummy trouble.

Recent research shows that, in certain cities, spring rain triggers a large uptick in gastrointestinal illness.

Why rain is making people sick

A recent study published by researchers from Drexel University shows that heavy spring rainfall in Philadelphia may cause cases of acute gastrointestinal illness (aka diarrhea and vomiting) to double.

The study included three years of data that showed as soon as a day of heavy rainfall happened, gastrointestinal illness spiked… and it stayed higher for 28 days afterward. In fact, there were times when the daily average of gastrointestinal illness was more than double than it was during times of no rainfall.

Why would rainfall trigger an outbreak of stomach trouble?

Researchers suspect it all comes down to bacteria and other pathogens sneaking into the water supply. You see, large amounts of rain cause overflowing sewers and surface runoff to enter rivers and other bodies of water where drinking water is pulled from. That could lead to an increase in bad bacteria in tap water. People may also be encountering bad bacteria through direct contact with rainwater.

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There’s one specific bacterium researchers suspect is behind the uptick in tummy trouble — Cryptosporidium. This bacterium comes from fecal matter and is known to cause waterborne gastroenteritis.

Now, you may be thinking… I don’t live in Philadelphia, so this isn’t something I need to worry about. But that’s not true. This problem isn’t limited to Philadelphia. Under the right (or should I say wrong) conditions, it can happen anywhere.

Research from several years ago found that cities that have combined sewer systems that collect sewage and stormwater runoff before sending it to treatment facilities are all vulnerable to this problem.

Related: Why you need a water filter and how to choose it

A lot of older cities have these combined sewer systems. Chicago is another big one besides Philadelphia. But there are at least 772 other communities (mostly in the Northeast, Great Lakes, and Pacific Northwest) that have them.

Choose your drinking water carefully when rain strikes

So, what should you do to make sure spring showers don’t make you sick?

Well, you can purchase your water rather than drinking straight from the tap. If you don’t want to purchase your water all the time, you could at least do it during times when rainfall is high.

You could also invest in an at-home water filter. Although, do your research beforehand. Some (but not all) water filters filter out bacteria like Cryptosporidium, which is the one researchers suspect is causing the problem.

If you’re looking for a filter that does filter this bacterium, the CDC recommends getting a reverse osmosis filter. It also recommends getting a filter that has a pore size of 1 micron or less. This protects against microbes that have a diameter that’s one 1 micron or larger, and that includes Cryptosporidium. Also, choose the “absolute” 1-micron filter rather than the “nominal” 1-micron filter. The absolute filter removes Cryptosporidium more consistently.

Sources:

  1. Heavy spring rainfall is followed by spikes in gastrointestinal illness in Philadelphia — MedicalXpress
  2. Heavy precipitation, drinking water source, and acute gastrointestinal illness in Philadelphia, 2015-2017PLOS One
  3. Combined sewer systems lead to risk of illness after heavy rains — Phys.org
  4. A Guide to Water Filters — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.