'Swimmer's itch' caused by allergic reaction

Posted6/9/2014 5:30 AM

Months of long, cold winter days were left behind on the dock as the eager swimmer leapt into the waters of the campground lake. The boy swam and played with friends and emerged hours later, worn out but happy.

A week later, the family was back from vacation and making a beeline for the pediatrician's office hoping to find an answer for their 7-year-old's unusual body rash.


Itchy red spots had appeared after the boy's swim, subsided a bit with a dose of an oral antihistamine, but then spread out to cover the boy's arms and legs in a variety of welts and pimple-like lesions.

The happy camper was suffering from swimmer's itch -- fancy name, cercarial dermatitis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains that swimmer's itch is most common during the summer months and is actually the result of an allergic reaction to microscopic parasites that have been released into fresh and salt water by infected snails.

Apparently the little parasites prefer certain birds and mammals such as ducks, geese, muskrats and raccoons, but will lower their standards and burrow into human skin.

The CDC assures us that while they can enter human skin, these parasites will quickly die and will not go on to complete their life cycle in the human body as they would while inhabiting their favorite animal hosts.

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Swimmer's itch starts within minutes to days after a swimmer comes out of the water, with sufferers experiencing tingling, burning, or itching of the skin. Small red pimples can develop within the next 12 hours, and some blisters may also appear. The condition is generally self-limited, with rash and itching expected to fade away within one to two weeks of exposure.

The rash is not contagious, and medical treatment for swimmer's itch usually revolves around itch-control. Uncomfortable kids can be treated with oral antihistamines, topical steroid creams, colloidal oatmeal baths, and other anti-itch measures.

CDC experts note that as with other allergic reactions, the more often a child is exposed to contaminated water, the more "intense and immediate" will be the signs and symptoms of the resulting swimmer's itch.

To help decrease exposure to the offending parasites, the research group advises swimmers to refrain from feeding and attracting birds used by parasites to complete their life cycle, to swim away from the shoreline or marshy areas where snails like to dwell, and to quickly towel off or shower as soon as swim-time is over.

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