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Swimmer's Itch

Definition

Swimmer’s itch is a skin rash that appears after you have been swimming or wading in natural bodies of water. It is more common in warm freshwater (lakes and ponds), but it can also occur in salt water.

Causes

Swimmer’s itch is an allergic reaction to a specific parasite. The parasite enters the water through the waste of infected birds and snails. If the parasite comes in contact with your skin, it can burrow under the skin and cause a reaction.

Risk Factors

Swimmer’s itch is more common after:

  • Swimming or wading in warm fresh or salt water
  • Swimming or wading in warm shallow water near the shoreline
  • Long periods of time in the water
  • Previous episodes of swimmer’s itch
  • Swimming in locations with onshore winds
  • Swimming in areas with a lot of birds

Swimmer’s itch is also more common in children since they tend to stay in shallow water.

Symptoms

Symptoms can occur quickly. In most cases, you will notice skin irritation before the rash appears. Symptoms can include:

  • Itching
  • A sensation of burning or tingling
  • Small red bumps, blisters, or pimples
Blistering Skin from Swimmer's Itch
IMAGE
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Diagnosis

There is no skin or blood test to diagnose swimmer’s itch. The doctor will base the diagnosis on information about recent activities and the appearance of the rash.

Treatment

The rash will go away on its own within a few days without medical treatment.

Scratching can cause further damage to the skin and increase the risk of infection. Itching may be relieved with:

  • Soothing baths and cool compresses
  • Over-the-counter cortisone creams and anti-itch medications
  • Oral antihistamines—for more severe itching

A severe rash may require prescription strength medication.

Prevention

To help reduce your chance of getting swimmer’s itch:

  • Apply a barrier lotion with broad-spectrum sunscreen product before going in the water.
  • Avoid swimming or wading in known contaminated waters. Also try and avoid areas of water with a lot of birds or marshy areas where there are snails.
  • Rub your (and your child’s) skin with a towel after coming out of the water.

Revision Information

  • American Academy of Dermatology

    http://www.aad.org

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

    http://www.cdc.gov

  • Canadian Dermatology Association

    http://www.dermatology.ca

  • Public Health Agency of Canada

    http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca

  • Parasites—Cercarial dermatitis (known as swimmer’s itch). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/swimmersitch/index.html. Updated January 10, 2012. Accessed July 29, 2014.

  • Swimmer’s itch. American Osteopathic College of Dermatology website. Available at: http://www.aocd.org/?page=SwimmersItch. Accessed July 29, 2014.

  • Swimmer’s itch. DermNet NZ website. Available at: http://www.dermnetnz.org/arthropods/swimmers-itch.html. Updated December 29, 2013. Accessed July 29, 2014.

  • Verbrugge LM, Rainey JJ, et al. Prospective study of swimmer’s itch incidence and severity. J Parasitol. 2004;90(4):697-704.

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