Don’t let swimmer’s itch happen to you

Health & Fitness

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A woman’s leg showing the effects of swimmer’s itch. | Courtesy photo

BLACKFOOT — Swimmer’s itch is hitting east Idaho, and local officials are offering insight into how to prevent it.

The good news is that in most cases, swimmer’s itch isn’t usually a huge cause for concern, as it isn’t a disease that spreads from person to person. Swimmer’s itch is actually caused by a parasite, and it usually subsides in about a week.

Mike Taylor, surveillance epidemiologist with Eastern Idaho Public Health, tracks and monitors communicable diseases and other health concerns in the area.

“Swimmer’s itch isn’t a reportable public health condition, but we hear reports of it on Facebook, in the news, or by word of mouth,” he said.

Swimmer’s itch, also known as cercarial dermatitis, is caused by a parasite that lives among water fowl.

“The birds leave droppings, and then the snails eat those droppings and leave microscopic droppings in open water,” Taylor said.

Courtesy CDC

Swimmer’s itch is common around the world, especially during the summer when people are swimming in open water such as ponds or lakes, though it can also happen in salt water. Though water in Eastern Idaho can be colder and less conducive to the parasite, the warmer temperatures lately lend themselves to a more ideal parasitic environment.

“The parasite thrives in these stagnant, warmer bodies of water,” Taylor said. “We play in those areas, and the parasite gets onto the skin and burrows under the skin.”

That skin infection then causes a reaction, what most people see as a skin rash with blisterlike break outs that are itchy.

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If you do get swimmer’s itch, home remedies for treatment — such as cold compresses and Epson salt baths — help alleviate itching and relive the rash until it goes away on its own. It’s best if you can refrain from itching the affected area too much. Itching too much can break the skin and possibly cause a secondary infection. If that happens, it’s important to talk to your doctor, Taylor added.

Of course, the best course of action is prevention. But that doesn’t mean you have to avoid open bodies of water altogether.

“I swim every year with my wife and kids,” Taylor said. “The possibility of swimmer’s itch is there, but there are things you can do to prevent it.”

Fight the itch

  • Avoid warmer, stagnant bodies of water if possible.
  • After swimming in open water, shower off as soon as possible — within 10 to 20 minutes. Many public open water areas have shower areas and restrooms for your use.
  • If you can’t shower off, towel off immediately after swimming in open water to rub off the skin.

“We want to remind open-water swimmers to be cautious,” Taylor said.

Typically a rash can happen fairly quickly after exposure and isn’t too severe, though a very infected body of water can cause a more severe reaction.

Local resident Levi Christiansen experienced swimmer’s itch last summer at the lake at Little Lemhi Scout Camp near Palisades.

“I saw the affected area a day after swimming,” Christiansen said. “The break outs were like a mosquito bite that had pus that oozed out of it. It took about five days before they went away.”

He added that other Scouts swimming with his group who were wearing long-sleeve shirts did not experience swimmer’s itch on their chests or arms.

“(Swimmer’s itch) is not fun to have,” Taylor said.

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