Paddling hygiene and health

Like most outdoor activities, canoeing and kayaking are carried out in an environment where there is some risk of contracting infections.  This risk is not necessarily associated with visibly 'dirty' water or surroundings - clear rivers and apparently clean grassy riverbanks can equally be sources of irritating or troublesome minor diseases, eg skin irritations, stomach upsets, etc, as well as potentially the rare but more serious leptospirosis (see section below).  While such problems are by no means commonplace, the following simple precautions below can reduce your risk still further:

  • Cover cuts, scratches or sores with a waterproof plaster and thoroughly clean cuts or abrasions received during activities
  • Avoid capsize drill or rolling in stagnant or very slow moving water
  • Wash hands before eating or drinking
  • Wash or shower promptly after paddling, especially if you fall in or are practicing rolling.

Paddlers on day trips or other longer sessions involving a refreshment break or lunch may wish to consider carrying a small bottle of anti-bacterial hand-cleaning gel alongside their food & drink and using it before eating.


Leptospirosis is an infection that can be transmitted from animals to humans - the commonest sources of infection in the UK being rats and cattle.  Occurrence of the disease in humans is not particularly common - typically only around 50-60 cases are reported per year in England and Wales.  While many of these are in farm-workers, sewage workers, etc, around half of cases involve recreational water-sports participants - paddlers, fisherman, wild swimmers, divers etc. It is worth noting that Leptospirosis can also be acquired abroad, particularly on adventure holidays with water contact such as canoeing/kayaking, rafting or fishing.

Infection is most commonly acquired directly from infected rat urine or from water contaminated with urine. The infection can enter the body through cut or damaged skin, but may also pass across mucous membranes (eg in the mouth and nose) and through the eyes.  Risk of contamination for paddlers can be particularly significant:

  • in areas of slow-moving or stagnant water (eg ponds, small lakes or  canals)
  • in rivers in flood or after heavy local rainfall where contamination could have been washed from rat burrows
  • from direct contact with infected ground on riverbanks etc frequented by rats.

Observation of the hygiene measures outlined above will considerably reduce the risk of contracting the disease.

Leptospirosis causes the abrupt onset of an unpleasant flu-like illness characterised by a severe headache, chills, muscle aches, and vomiting. Symptoms usually develop 7-21 days after initial infection, though in rare instances the incubation period can be as short as 2-3 days or as long as 30 days.  While many cases develop no further, a few progress to a more severe illness (also known as Weil's Disease) with more severe symptoms accompanied by one or more of skin rash, meningitis, jaundice and kidney failure.  Complete recovery with no long term after-effects is the usual outcome from a case of Leptospirosis, although return to normality may take a period of weeks and possibly months. However, a very small proportion of the more severe cases each year do prove fatal.

As many of the symptoms of leptospirosis are similar to those seen in a number of other diseases, diagnosis is based on clinical suspicion confirmed by laboratory testing of blood samples. There is a specialist reference laboratory for leptospirosis in theUK, which can be consulted by doctors. The disease responds well to antibiotics, which should ideally be given as early as possible to limit the severity of the infection. If you think you could have leptospirosis, consult your doctor without delay. Make sure that he/she fully understands that you have been at risk of infection through contact with potentially-infected water - anecdotal experience suggests that it sometimes necessary to be quite persuasive to get this possibility recognised quickly!

Reporting instances of illness after paddling

If you are unfortunate enough to suffer some form of illness in the days after paddling which could be paddling-related, it would be helpful if you could contact the leader of your activity or one of the other coaches/leaders and tell him/her about it.  This will enable us to offer you further advice and reassurance.  We can also monitor any repeating patterns of such problems and advise the relevant authorities (eg the Environment Agency) if we do identify a pattern of occurrences. We may also, if appropriate, adjust our use of the locations concerned.