JUNE 27 – A cool swim on a hot day can be refreshing and invigorating. But in some cases, it can also lead to tingling, itching and burning of the skin, compounded by small, reddish pimples or blisters.
Each summer, the Health Department of Northwest Michigan receives inquiries from tourists and residents concerned about cercarial dermatitis, commonly known as "swimmer's itch," occurring after swimming or wading in local lakes and rivers. The condition appears as a skin rash and is caused by a reaction to parasites that infect some birds and mammals. These microscopic parasites are released from infected snails into the water. If the parasite comes into contact with a swimmer, it burrows into the skin. As unpleasant as this sounds, swimmer's itch doesn't usually require any type of medical attention, according to Joshua Meyerson, M.D., Medical Director for the Health Department.
"Swimmer's itch is common throughout the world," Dr. Meyerson said. "A topical hydrocortisone cream, an antihistamine like Benadryl, or cool baths with baking soda or oatmeal can help soothe the itch. It's important to avoid scratching the itchy rash, to prevent a secondary infection."
Swimmer's itch can occur in any of Michigan's lakes, rivers or ponds, and is not a sign that a swimming area is unsafe. While the Health Department monitors public beaches in Northwest Michigan for the presence of E.coli bacteria – a much more serious threat that can lead to beach closures – beaches are not closed based on reports of swimmer's itch. Results from the Health Department's beach monitoring can be found on the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Web site at www.deq.state.mi.us/beach.
Dr. Meyerson adds that swimmer's itch is not contagious, and it does not occur in swimming pools that are properly maintained and chlorinated. He recommends that lake swimmers towel off quickly and thoroughly after leaving the water, to minimize any possible effects. Showering upon leaving the water is also helpful. Children may need extra help with toweling and showering to avoid swimmer's itch.
The Health Department of Northwest Michigan is mandated by the Michigan Public Health Code to promote wellness, prevent disease, provide quality healthcare, address health problems of vulnerable populations, and protect the environment for the residents and visitors of Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet, and Otsego counties. For more information, visit www.nwhealth.org or call (800) 432-4121.