Can you (or should you) swim in the Nile River? Long answer short – No, definitely not. I pride myself in (usually) being a fairly smart, well-researched traveller however on my last overseas trip to Egypt, I did decide to swim in the Nile River and contracted a parasite called Schistosomiasis (or Billharzia). Schistosomiasis is a parasite you can get from swimming in many fresh water places in Africa (including the Nile) and I was unlucky enough to get it. Here’s why you shouldn’t swim in the Nile River.
Schistosomiasis is the second most prevalent tropical disease in the world, after Malaria. It can be easily treated with medication, but can cause long-term health problems when left untreated and can damage kidneys, liver, bladder and even get into the spinal cord and brain just to name a few.
Many people delay treatment because they do not have any symptoms or the symptoms take a long time to appear. If you have spent time in or near the water in any of the countries where schistosomiasis is prevalent, then it is worth getting tested when you get home.
How do you contract Schistosomiasis?
Schistosomiasis enters your skin when you come into contact with infected water (even just paddling your toes can be enough to become inflected). Apparently it is more likely to occur in still than flowing water.
Again, long story short (you can read the full story here), I had a quick swim in the Nile River when travelling on a felucca during summer. It was a hot day, the water looked clean and our tour guide told us it was safe. I hadn’t done any research as we were taking a guided tour through Egypt rather than travelling on our own like we usually do. Turns out, it wasn’t safe.
How did I know that I had Schistosomiasis?
Most people have no symptoms when they are first infected, however some develop itchy skin or a rash within a few days. I got symptoms pretty quickly – the next morning I woke up and was really itchy under one arm and along my bra line. For about a week we though the rash was either swimmer’s itch or a heat rash because Egypt was ridiculously hot and I was wearing more conservative clothing than I normally would be at home in the heat.
The rash would come and go over the next three weeks as we continued travelling through Egypt, Jordan, Budapest, Austria and Cyprus.
The rash was predominately under my arms, on my arms, legs, stomach, breasts and back. In addition to the rash, I also had a general feeling of not being that well and an upset stomach. It’s hard to know if the diarrhea and nausea were related to that or whether they were just from having travelled through the Middle East for three weeks. Who knows? As we are in the business of over sharing – I can confirm it was no where near as bad as gastro in Peru or having Giardia in Turkey!
Getting tested & diagnosed with Schistosomiasis
I’d made an appointment with a doctor at my GP practice for the day after we got home. My rash, of course, was minimal on the day of my appointment but thankfully I had taken some photos from days when it was bad.
My GP wanted to do tests before giving me the antibiotics (whereas Dan’s GP just gave him the antibiotics without doing any tests). I had to do a blood, urine and stool sample and both the blood and stool sample showed schistosomiasis.
I was given a script for Praziquantel, the medication for schistosomiasis which was three doses of 20mg per kg taken 4 hours apart.
This medication was STRONG. Both Dan and I felt dizzy, nauseous and unwell for about two days on the medication and both needed time off work – however as it was so strong I think it would have killed any of the little snails inside me which I was very happy about!
Final thoughts: DON’T SWIM IN THE NILE RIVER
Knowing what I do now and having dealt with the shorter term side effects of Schistomiasis for around six weeks, I would definitely not swim in water where there was the risk of contracting this parasite.
A quick swim in the Nile River is seriously not worth risking your health over. Plan to enjoy it from the shore or the deck of your boat with a nice refreshing drink in hand.
DISCLAIMER: We are by no means medical professionals and this is not intended to be medical advice. This is just our experience of swimming in the Nile, unfortunately getting infected and being treated. Please do not rely upon our experience or information and ensure you contact your doctor when you return from your trip.