Every summer, cases of swimmer’s itch are reported to the Thurston County Health Department.
Swimmer’s itch is an unpleasant but avoidable condition that can occur after swimming in lakes.
The itch occurs when a microscopic parasite that comes from the feces of ducks and geese burrows under the skin of a swimmer. The parasite then dies and an allergic type of reaction develops that causes intense itching and may cause a rash.
To prevent swimmer’s itch:
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• Avoid swimming in areas where ducks or geese are present.
• Apply a waterproof sunscreen. The coating can help prevent the parasite from entering skin.
• Shower or vigorously towel-off immediately after leaving the water.
Most cases of swimmer’s itch do not require medical attention. If you have a rash, you might try the following for relief:
• Use corticosteroid cream.
• Apply cool compresses to the affected areas.
• Bathe in Epsom salts or baking soda.
• Soak in colloidal oatmeal baths or use anti-itch lotions such as those by Aveeno.
• Apply baking soda paste to the rash (made by stirring water into baking soda until it reaches a paste-like consistency)
• Use an anti-itch lotion, such as calamine lotion.
Though difficult, try not to scratch. Scratching might cause the rash to become infected. If itching is severe, your health care provider may suggest prescription-strength lotions or creams to lessen your symptoms.
Warm sunny days also can lead to algae blooms in local lakes. Blue-green algae reproduce rapidly in fresh water when the amount of sunlight, temperature and nutrients are just right. Within a few days, a clear lake can become cloudy with algae growth. This is called an algae bloom. Blue-green algae blooms often float to the surface and form a scum that can be several inches thick.
If you visit a lake and see a bright green color or thick scum along the shore, avoid swimming in that area. Some blue-green algae can produce toxins, which can cause illness in humans and kill pets, fish, waterfowl and other animals. Keep children, pets and livestock away from the water.
Pets are the most susceptible because they both drink water and then lick the scum off of their fur or paws. Children also are vulnerable because they might accidentally swallow water while swimming. Get proper medical or veterinary attention right away if you, your children or pets have signs of poisoning such as weakness, staggering, difficulty in breathing, convulsions, numbness of the lips, tingling in fingers and toes, dizziness, abdominal pain, diarrhea or vomiting.
If the water at your beach looks bad, find a different place to swim. There is no way to predict when, or if, an algae bloom will be toxic. Only laboratory tests can determine if an algae bloom is toxic, and this testing only provides information on a single sample at a particular moment in time.
For more information, contact Thurston County Public Health and Social Services Department at www.co.thurston.wa.us/health/ehadm/swimming/swimming_index.html or 360-754-4111, TDD line is 360-754-2933. To report swimming–related illness, call 360-754-3355, ext. 6659.
Dr. Diana Yu is the health officer for the Thurston County Public Health and Social Services Department, 412 Lilly Road N.E., Olympia, 98506. For information from the Health Department, call 360-786-5581.