What you should know about swimmer's itch

Itching is caused by parasite found in lake wildlife

A friend recently told me he had heard of swimmers itch but never took it seriously.

That is until he got it this summer after wading in some water by his house. After experiencing what he called "the most intense itching ever," he now takes it very seriously.

Lake living is great until the water you depend on for fun and sport carries a parasite that burrows into your skin -- that's exactly what causes swimmer's itch. It's a parasite that requires two other things to multiply and invade: snails and certain birds, like merganser or mallard ducks, and Canada geese.  

Michigan is actually a hub for much of the research into the lifecycle of the parasite that causes swimmer's itch. It was first discovered back in 1928 in a Michigan lake.

Here's what happens:

The parasites infect the birds, which then pass parasite eggs in their feces. Those eggs hatch and invade snails where they multiply into the form that can burrow into a person's skin. Humans aren't the target -- birds are -- but that doesn't stop them from trying, and it's the attempt to literally "get under your skin" that causes the problem.

When the larvae die they create an intense allergic response that leads to the red bumps and itching. It isn't contagious, and they aren't harmful as long as the bumps don't become infected, but the itching will leave you miserable for days. The treatment for the itching and redness are antihistamines and steroid creams.

There are a few things you can do to prevent the problem:

  • Using waterproof sunscreen is thought to help by creating a barrier over your skin to the parasite.
  • Ask if swimmer's itch has been an issue where you plan to swim -- if it is, don't get in.
  • After swimming in water with lots of ducks or geese -- or that's marshy, or has lots of snails -- shower immediately and towel off completely.
  • Avoid feeding ducks and geese. That can bring in the parasite.
  • And finally, if you do get swimmer's itch, be sure to report to the local lake authorities.

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