What’s that Rash: Swimmer’s Itch

It can be tempting on a hot summer day to go wading in a nearby lake or take a dip in the ocean. While this is an enjoyable way to cool off, there’s one thing to keep an eye out for afterward: swimmer’s itch.

What is swimmer’s itch?

Swimmer’s itch goes by the formal name of cercarial dermatitis. It’s a skin rash caused by certain parasites that live in water. Animals (mostly birds) that become infected will pass the parasite through their droppings. If the bird feces gets into the water, the parasite eggs hatch and start looking for their intermediary host, a particular type of snail, to continue their development. Once the larvae are ready, they leave the snail in search of their new host.

If these microscopic larvae then encounter a human in the water, they will burrow into the skin in hopes they’ve found a suitable host.

The good news: The parasites cannot survive in humans — they will soon die.

The bad news: They leave behind a lovely parting gift — an itchy rash.

What are the symptoms of swimmer’s itch?

Signs of swimmer’s itch may start to occur within minutes of swimming in infected water, though sometimes it can take days for symptoms to appear.

  • Irritated, burning, itchy skin
  • Small red dots
  • Small blisters

The rash can appear all over — on any part of the body that was exposed to the water (i.e. not underneath a tight-fitting swimsuit).

Not everyone who comes in contact with the parasite will develop symptoms. Swimmer’s itch is an allergic reaction to the parasite. As with any potential allergen, people may react with varying levels of severity — or not at all. However, repeated exposure to the allergen will make the rash worse and the onset more sudden.

Can I prevent swimmer’s itch?

The only sure way to prevent swimmer’s itch is to avoid water that is contaminated with the parasite. However, since it’s nearly impossible to know this beforehand, here are some helpful tips to remember:

  • Stagnant freshwater sources, like lakes or ponds, are more likely to cause swimmer’s itch than oceans or flowing water.
  • Avoiding the shallow water or shoreline will reduce the chances of encountering the parasites.
  • Drying off with a towel immediately after getting out of the water can remove the parasites before they get a chance to burrow into the skin.
  • Using creams that prevent jellyfish stings may also be helpful in preventing the parasite from trying to burrow into the skin.
  • Wearing protective swimwear like a wetsuit, rash guard, or swim leggings will reduce the surface area available for the parasites to contact the skin.

When should I see a doctor for swimmer’s itch?

Swimmer’s itch is not contagious and will go away on its own. The rash can be treated with common remedies like oral antihistamines, steroid creams, anti-itch lotions, cold compresses, and bathing in Epsom salts or oatmeal. However, symptoms can last for two weeks. During this time, scratching at the blisters could result in a secondary infection.

If your rash doesn’t go away after a couple of weeks, if you suspect it has become infected, or if you need stronger relief for the itching, you should visit your doctor or local urgent care clinic.

Is swimmer’s itch a problem in Hampton Roads?

Here in Hampton Roads, swimmer’s itch is not as common as in some other parts of the US. However, with our region’s abundance of beautiful wetlands, coastlines, and wildlife, it can happen anywhere! Taking the necessary precautions when you are out enjoying nature will hopefully prevent swimmer’s itch and other ailments. If that’s not enough and you find yourself in need of a doctor, stop by one of our four urgent care clinics in Hampton Roads. We want to help you feel better fast, so you can get back to enjoying the great outdoors!