Nothing can ruin a day at the lake faster than swimmer’s itch. Swimmer’s itch is unfortunately becoming a more common problem in our North Idaho lakes and rivers. Recent news stories and warnings from health care providers that swimmer’s itch is on the rise in our area has many of us asking what can be done to avoid the problem?
We are in some of the hottest days of summer and we just came off a long winter that ate into our spring pretty deeply. Many of you are training for Ironman and even more of you are just diving in to cool off during these hot days. Our cold wet winter didn’t slow down the lake from heating up quickly this year and that seems to be part of the problem. Currently many of our local lakes are averaging between 72 degrees and 75 degrees.
Swimmer’s itch, which is also called cercarial dermatitis, can be a very uncomfortable health issue. The cause of swimmer’s itch comes from a flatworm parasite. The larvae of the wormlike parasites comes from water fowl and once you get exposed, they can burrow into your skin. This then triggers an allergic reaction in the form of painful red bumps that itch and can become infected.
These nasty little parasites make their home in the gastrointestinal tracts of water fowl. As duck and goose poop mingles with the warm waters, the parasite eggs then hatch and start their free-swimming larval stage. The larva swim to the surface and float until we swim through a hatch, they then hop on and dig in. The great news is there has been no known evidence to indicate that these nasty little bugs that cause swimmer’s itch have ever made it past our outer layer of skin.
OK, so now you have a basic idea on where these parasites come from and how they make it into the water. So how do you avoid them?
The best way to prevent swimmer’s itch is to become a poor host. First, always wear waterproof lotions or sunscreen. This is pretty effective at keeping them from digging into your upper skin layer. There are products out there made specifically for swimmer’s itch protection that coats your skin and keeps these guys from getting to your skin.
The next aspect is more for athletes who are wearing wetsuits. There is not much out there on how effective wetsuits are at keeping these bugs off you, but it does seem they create a good barrier. Just be sure to coat your feet.
Avoid shallow waters that have a lot of waterfowl present. These parasites stay close to the surface and are moved by wind and currents to stagnant shallow waters. Swimmer’s itch is often most common where the bird population is high, around swimming holes and crowded beaches. Deep water and fast moving water are not usually going to have the parasite present or in any kind of heavy concentration.
It is always a good idea to towel off after you get out of the water. These parasites can work their nasty magic burrowing into you if given plenty of time on your skin, so towel off quickly after each swim.
Now what do you do if you get swimmer’s itch? First of all, you will know fairly quickly if you have swimmer’s itch, usually within 24 hours of exposure. Small bumps form and they spread fairly rapidly. Most often legs and arms are where you see them first appear. Itching these bumps can lead to serious infection, so best to avoid scratching.
Actual treatment can be tricky, with some people being mildly affected by the parasites and others much worse. Try applying an antihistamine cream on the affected areas and a dose of antihistamine may help. Your best bet is to seek help from your doctor or an urgent care facility. They will likely prescribe prescription steroids, antibiotics and either recommend an over the counter antihistamine or prescribe a stronger dose. It all depends on how bad your body is covered and if you have managed to infect the bumps from itching them.
Expect to deal with bumps, pain and discomfort for two to three weeks. Your skin will look like you have some serious skin disease or rash, so these parasites really make sporting summer fashion a tough gig.
Swimmer’s itch is not something you want to mess with. Avoid it by following a few simple steps listed above. If you get a small case, you can most likely manage it with cream and a good antihistamine. If you have a large area affected and it keeps spreading, I would recommend seeing a health care professional ASAP. Unfortunately, every summer these parasites seem to be popping up more often, so just be careful and mindful to protect yourself while swimming.
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Judd Jones is a director for The Hagadone Corporation and Certified Health Coach.