What is swimmer’s itch?

Swimmer’s itch (a.k.a. cercarial dermatitis) is a non-contagious skin rash caused by a microscopic parasite that usually affects birds and other mammals.

How is swimmer’s itch transmitted to humans?

The parasites that cause swimmer’s itch are transmitted into freshwater and salt water by infected snails.   The parasite then comes into contact with a mammal.   Usually, the parasite infects birds and other animals, but occasionally it can come into contact with a swimmer.   It then burrows into the skin with causes an allergic reaction and a rash.

The parasite that causes swimmer’s itch cannot live inside a human body. After burrowing into human skin, it dies soon after.

Where is swimmer’s itch most common?

Swimmer’s itch happens all over the world. The larvae of the parasite that causes swimmer’s itch are more present in shallow water near the shoreline. It is more common in the summer months.

Who is at risk for swimmer’s itch?

Anybody who swims in infested water can get swimmer’s itch. Children are more likely to get the parasite, because they tend to swim in shallower waters, and they are less likely to towel dry after swimming.

What are the symptoms of swimmer’s itch?

Symptoms include:

  • Tingling, burning, or itching skin
  • Small, red bumps
  • Small blisters

If you are infected with the parasite, you may experience tingling, burning, or itching skin within minutes or days after swimming. The red bumps will appear within 12 hours, and they may turn into blisters. Itching can last up to a week, but it will eventually subside. If you develop swimmer’s itch, avoid swimming to make sure the rash does not become worse. Do not scratch the rash as this can cause secondary bacterial infections.

How is swimmer’s itch treated?

In most cases, swimmer’s itch will go away on its own and will not require medical attention. Do not scratch the rash as this can lead to secondary bacterial infections. If the itch becomes unbearable, you can visit your healthcare provider who can prescribe prescription anti-itch creams. You can treat swimmer’s itch at home by:

  • Using corticosteroid cream
  • Applying cool compresses to affected areas
  • Bathe with Epsom salt or baking soda
  • Take colloidal oatmeal baths
  • Apply baking soda paste to the rash (mix baking soda with water until a thick paste forms)
  • Use anti-itch lotion

Can I get swimmer’s itch by swimming in a pool?

As long as a pool is maintained and clean, there is no risk of getting swimmer’s itch from a swimming pool. The snails that carry the parasite must be present to spread swimmer’s itch.

How can I prevent swimmer’s itch?

To reduce the chances of getting swimmer’s itch:

  • Do not swim in areas where there is a parasite outbreak, especially if warning signs have been posted
  • Do not swim in waters where snails are normally found
  • Dry yourself off with a towel and shower right after swimming
  • Do not feed birds near areas where people are swimming
  • Encourage local health departments to post warning signs in areas where swimmer’s itch is common

For more information on swimmer’s itch, click here.