On Your Side: Swim in lakes, creeks and rivers? Know about swimmer’s itch

Published: Jul. 29, 2021 at 8:56 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - A Springfield family discovered they were not bug bites. They came from something in the water.

“It’s very gross. And she was itching from head to toe. It’s hard to tell an 11-year-old to stop scratching when they’re everywhere,” said Jill Finney, parent.

At first, Finney thought it was a bad case of bug bites. Her daughter, Kara, just got back from summer camp at Lake Wappapello in southeast Missouri. Each day the marks multiplied.

“When she woke up, they were on her face. When I saw them on her face, I was like, these are not bug bites. She was so miserable. We had given her everything over-the-counter,” said Finney.

A trip to urgent care provided answers. This is called swimmer’s itch. It’s caused by little parasites linked to water fowl and snails. If the parasite comes into contact with a swimmer, it burrows itself into the skin. Which can cause an allergic reaction and rash.

“And people aren’t part of the life-cycle of those parasites. So they don’t infect us. They don’t continue to live in our skin if they get on us. But they can cause an allergic reaction in the skin. And that’s what causes the rash and the itching,” said Dr. Ashley Merrick, with Mercy.

Since it’s an allergic reaction, that means a group of people could swim in the same place and not everyone will end up with swimmer’s itch.

“It’s not in all bodies of water. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t,” said Dr. Merrick.

It cannot spread from person-to-person. The big message from doctors, do not scratch!

“You don’t want to get a secondary infection with the bacteria that’s under your fingernails. Antihistamines and topical anti-itch cream are some of the most effective treatments,” said Dr. Merrick.

On Your Side wanted to know, how can you tell if the water is safe? In the summer, the Department of Natural Resources tests lake beaches once a week for E. coli. You can find the results on its website.

As for rivers, streams and creeks some country health departments and watershed groups collect samples and test. These tests only examine bacteria levels, not the parasites in the water that cause swimmer’s itch. So you really do not know it’s there, until these spots appear or someone else reports a problem.

After you swim, take a shower or at least towel dry. That will minimize your exposure. Doctors say swimmer’s itch is not common, but it happens in warm, stagnant water.

Some health experts recommend not swimming at least 24 hours after a storm or heavy rain.

If you get it, report it to the Department of Natural Resources or a park ranger, so officials can look into it. Lake Wappapello officials are investigating this case.

Talk to your doctor if you have a rash after swimming that lasts more than three days. If you notice pus at the rash site, consult your doctor.

CDC info on swimmer’s itch.

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