All You Need To Know About Waterborne Diseases

Waterborne diseases are illnesses caused by consuming contaminated water. These diseases are a major public health issue worldwide, responsible for millions of deaths each year. 

Contaminated water can contain harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, and chemicals that can cause severe gastrointestinal illness. Common waterborne diseases include cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A, and E. coli infection. 

In developing countries, most illnesses are linked to poor water quality and sanitation. Even in developed nations like the United States, there are millions of cases of waterborne illness each year. 

Understanding the risks, symptoms, and prevention methods for waterborne diseases is crucial to safeguarding individual and community health.  

What Are Waterborne Diseases and How Are They Spread?

Waterborne diseases are transmitted through contaminated drinking water. Water can become contaminated at any point from the source to the consumer. 

Typical contamination sources include human and animal waste, agricultural runoff containing pesticides or chemicals, and improper disposal of hazardous industrial waste. Pathogens enter water supplies through broken pipes, poorly maintained filtration systems, or natural disasters like flooding. Once contaminated, drinking water spreads pathogens to humans through ingestion, bathing, cooking, or food preparation. 

Due to inadequate sanitation infrastructure, developing nations face greater challenges in providing clean water. However, waterborne illnesses can affect any community if water treatment systems fail or pollution enters the local water supply.

Waterborne Diseases in the United States

While the U.S. has advanced water systems, gaps can lead to major outbreaks. One significant incident highlighting the gravity of water contamination was the crisis at Camp Lejeune. Between the 1950s and the 1980s, drinking water at Camp Lejeune, a U.S. Marine Corps base, was contaminated with harmful chemicals. 

This contamination adversely affected many service members and their families, with some facing serious health issues as a result. Recognizing the consequences of this exposure, the Veterans Administration offers specific assistance under Camp Lejeune Water Contamination VA Benefits to impacted veterans and their families.

From 2013 to 2017, there were nearly 500 disease outbreaks due to contaminated drinking water, causing over 4,000 cases of illness, 124 hospitalizations, and 13 deaths. The most frequent deficiencies enabling outbreaks were:

  • Treatment lapses or interruptions (e.g., temporary shutoff of chlorine disinfectant) 
  • Contaminated distribution systems and storage tanks
  • Insufficient barriers to prevent environmental contamination of wells 

Climate change may also increase the risk of waterborne illness by triggering flooding, power outages, infrastructure damage, and harmful algal blooms. Ongoing investment in water infrastructure and surveillance systems is vital to provide safe water to all Americans.

Health Effects and Symptoms

Ingesting contaminated water can cause acute gastrointestinal illness. Symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, and headaches. While unpleasant, most waterborne sickness resolves within 2-3 days. However, some pathogens cause more serious diseases. 

  • Viruses like hepatitis A can cause liver inflammation and jaundice
  • Parasites like Giardia may trigger longer-lasting diarrhea and nutrient malabsorption
  • Bacterial infections can spread from the intestines to the bloodstream, leading to life-threatening complications like kidney failure or meningitis

Those with weakened immune systems, the elderly, infants, and pregnant women face a heightened risk of severe waterborne illness and outbreaks, which can quickly overwhelm local healthcare systems. Areas with inadequate water and sanitation infrastructure also see high rates of water-related diseases like trachoma, an eye infection that can lead to blindness.


Common Waterborne Diseases

Harmful microbes like bacteria, viruses, and parasites cause waterborne illnesses. These pathogens can contaminate water sources and cause severe gastrointestinal sickness when ingested. Here are some of the most frequent and dangerous waterborne diseases worldwide:

  • Cholera

Cholera is a severe bacterial disease transmitted through contaminated water and food. It causes profuse, watery diarrhea and vomiting, leading to dangerous dehydration and even death if not treated promptly. Cholera outbreaks tend to occur in areas with inadequate sanitation infrastructure and poor wastewater management. Providing universal access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation is crucial for controlling the spread of cholera.

  • Typhoid Fever

Typhoid fever is a life-threatening illness caused by the bacteria Salmonella typhi. Symptoms include high fever, headaches, stomach pain, and diarrhea or constipation. Intestinal bleeding can also occur. Typhoid spreads easily in areas lacking clean water and proper sanitation. Improving community hygiene and water quality helps prevent typhoid transmission. Vaccines can also protect people at high risk.

  • E. Coli Infection

Most strains of Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria are harmless. However, some can cause severe foodborne and waterborne illnesses. Pathogenic E. coli can contaminate water supplies and cause bloody diarrhea, severe stomach cramps, vomiting, and fever. In severe cases, it may lead to kidney failure. Young children are particularly vulnerable. Maintaining water safety from source to tap is key to stopping E. coli spread.

  • Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is a highly infectious liver disease caused by the hepatitis A virus. Contaminated food and water are common sources. Symptoms include jaundice, fever, fatigue, nausea, and abdominal pain. In rare cases, hepatitis A can cause liver failure and death. The hepatitis A vaccine provides effective, long-term immunity from the virus. Good hygiene and sanitation also prevent its spread.

  • Giardiasis

This intestinal illness is caused by the parasite Giardia. It spreads through contaminated water or food. Giardiasis causes chronic, greasy diarrhea that can last over a week if untreated. Other symptoms include gas, nausea, dehydration, and weight loss. Giardia infection may contribute to malnutrition in developing countries. Preventing contamination of community water supplies with sewage and animal waste is important to control giardiasis.

  • Cryptosporidiosis

The parasite Cryptosporidium is a major cause of waterborne disease worldwide. It spreads through drinking water contaminated with animal or human waste. Cryptosporidiosis causes profuse, watery diarrhea that can be life-threatening for people with weakened immune systems. Cryptosporidium is highly resistant to chlorine disinfection, so comprehensive treatment barriers and watershed protection are required to remove it from drinking water.


Prevention and Water Treatment

Preventing waterborne diseases requires multiple barriers between pathogens and drinking water consumers:

  • Protecting water at the source from contamination through appropriate land use policies and agricultural practices.
  • Using effective water treatment like filtration, sedimentation, and disinfection to remove or kill pathogens. Chlorine is the most common disinfectant worldwide.
  • Preventing recontamination during storage and distribution via sealed pipes and tanks.
  • Educating the public on safe water handling and hygiene practices at home.
  • Developing effective surveillance and outbreak response systems.

In addition to treatment, governments must invest in adequate sanitation infrastructure like sewage systems and toilets. Better wastewater management prevents raw sewage from entering drinking water sources. Boiling or filtering water at home provides added protection. Vaccines offer immunity from some waterborne illnesses like hepatitis A and cholera.


Access to clean water is essential for community health and development. Waterborne contaminants can quickly spread disease when water systems fail. Chlorination and modern sanitation practices have drastically reduced waterborne illnesses in the 20th century. However, challenges remain worldwide, especially in developing nations lacking resources. Continued efforts are needed to upgrade water infrastructure, improve hygiene practices, and address environmental pollution. With global cooperation and smart prevention policies, we can work towards a future where deadly waterborne diseases become a thing of the past.