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Life’s a beach: Don’t let “Swimmer’s Itch” slow you down

SNOHOMISH COUNTY---Going for a swim? You might come out scratching from tiny creatures that cause “Swimmer’s Itch,” or suffering from a bout of gastro-intestinal illness, say officials at Snohomish Health District.

The water at recreational beaches is not treated to control the spread of disease. Bacteria, viruses and parasites that live in the water can cause illness in people who swallow it. Beach users should follow beach recommendations to avoid contaminating the water and to avoid illness.

Similarly, an annoying but harmless rash also may irritate people who swim in freshwater or saltwater. A parasite larva can burrow into a swimmer’s skin and die there, causing “Swimmer’s Itch.” It’s not dangerous and cannot be transmitted from person to person. Waterfowl are the primary hosts for these parasites and such birds should not be attracted to swimming areas by feeding them.

Symptoms may start within five minutes to an hour after leaving the water. Any area of the body exposed to the water may be affected. Small reddish pimples emerge within 12 to 24 hours from time of exposure. The itching is an allergic response to the dead larvae within the skin, and stops within a week or so, but the rash may heal more slowly. In some cases it may take a month for complete healing.

“You can control the itching somewhat by applying skin cream or spray containing antihistamines, corticosteroids and/or benzocaine,” said M. Ward Hinds, MD, MPH, health officer for Snohomish County. Over-the-counter oral antihistamines may help, but if symptoms persist or worsen, you should see your physician. “The only certain way for swimmers to avoid this nuisance disease is to swim only in swimming pools and spas that use a water filtration and disinfection system,” said Dr. Hinds.

Swimmers can reduce the risk of developing “Swimmer’s Itch” by taking a shower immediately after leaving the water. If that’s not possible, briskly dry the entire body with a towel, including under the swimsuit, immediately after leaving the water. If no towel is available, try stripping the water off your skin with your hands.

Established in 1959, the Snohomish Health District works for a safer and healthier community through disease prevention, health promotion, and protection from environmental threats. Find more information about the Health District at