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Swimmer’s Itch

By HERWriter
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My old roommate loved to swim in a lake near our house. One day he said, “Well, I’m done swimming in the lake, it gave me swimmer’s itch.” He had a red bumpy rash on the skin where the water had lapped against his neck and shoulders. Not being a lake person, I never wanted to swim there. However, swimmer’s itch can occur from swimming in any body of fresh or salt water if it has become infected with the larvae from a certain breed of snail.

Swimmer's itch, also called cercarial dermatitis, is an allergic skin reaction that comes from swimming in contaminated water. Aquatic birds or mammals that live near the water can become infected with a parasite. The parasite lays eggs in the animal that end up in the animal’s feces, which hatch into larvae.

These larvae then infect a certain type of aquatic snail and are re-released as developed larvae (called cercariae) into the water. The larvae burrow into the skin of people swimming in lakes or the ocean causing a red papule-like itchy rash to develop. The larvae cannot survive long on human skin so they do die off but not without causing an allergic reaction first.

Symptoms of swimmer’s itch are: red pimples that occur 12 hours after swimming that may develop into blisters. Burning, tingling or itching may last up to a week after exposure then gradually diminish. However, the more often a person is exposed to the contaminated water, the more severe the symptoms may be. Excessive scratching may also cause a secondary skin infection.

Treatment for swimmer’s itch usually does not require a doctor’s visit. Topical soothing applications of calamine, baking soda pasta mixed with water or ice compresses may help. Baths in Epsom salt or oatmeal-based products like Aveno may relieve more severe itching. Over the counter steroid creams can be used.

Swimmer’s itch is not contagious so it cannot be spread from person to person. Additionally, once a swimming area has become contaminated with the larvae that causes swimmer's itch it does not mean that the area will always be unsafe. Both infected birds or mammals and the breed of snail that allow the offending larvae develop must be present at the same time. These factors can change even within one swimming season.


Children are more susceptible to developing swimmer’s itch because they play in shallower areas closer to the shoreline. It is best for people to avoid these marshy close-in areas since snails and larvae are more common there. Do not swim in an area that is known for having swimmer’s itch or if signs are posted with any unsafe water conditions. Do alert health inspectors if an outbreak of swimmer’s itch occurs in a local swim area. After swimming anywhere, especially in questionable waters, make sure to take a shower with soap as soon as you can.


Michele is an R.N. freelance writer with a special interest in woman’s healthcare and quality of care issues. Other articles by Michele are at www.helium.com/users/487540/show_articles

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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