Swimmer's Itch: Solutions for Treatment and Prevention

girl swimming in a lake

Enjoying all of Michigan’s beautiful bodies of water is one of the many perks of summer in northern Michigan. Unfortunately, swimming or wading in water can often result in an itchy rash commonly called “swimmer’s itch.” 

What is swimmer’s itch?

Known officially as cercarial dermatitis, swimmer’s itch is a skin rash caused by an allergic reaction to tiny parasites found in bodies of water such as lakes and rivers. The parasites are shed from animal feces, especially from waterfowl and snails. The rash can appear within minutes of leaving the water or within a few days and can last up to a month.

Though they can cause an allergic reaction and itchy rash, the parasites can’t live on your skin –and the rash isn’t contagious between people. 

Symptoms and treatment of swimmer's itch

If you have swimmer’s itch, you may experience a rash that burns or itches. The rash may also contain bumps that look like hives, pimples, or blisters. It is important to avoid scratching the rash to prevent infection. 

Brian McComb

“Swimmer's itch does not typically last very long but the itching can be intense,” says Brian McComb, DO, Chief Medical Officer, Munson Healthcare East Region. “Rinsing off quickly after swimming may help lessen the symptoms or the chance of developing the rash.”

To keep the itch at bay, try the following at-home treatment tips. 

  • Cool, moist compress. Put a clean damp cloth on the area for 20 to 30 minutes, 5 to 6 times a day as needed.
  • Corticosteroid cream or ointment. You can apply this medicine several times a day on clean skin.
  • Antihistamine. This medicine can help ease itching. You can put it on your skin as a cream or take it by mouth as a pill.
  • Colloidal oatmeal bath. Soaking in water with colloidal oatmeal can help soothe itchy skin.
  • Baking soda paste. This can help relieve itching. Mix baking soda with water into a paste. Put it on your rash.
  • Other anti-itch lotion or cream. Ask your healthcare provider about other anti-itch lotion or cream that can help relieve symptoms. They may prescribe a stronger medicine if over-the-counter medicine isn’t helping you.

Although it often resolves quickly, a swimmer’s itch rash could take several weeks to a month to go away. If your symptoms aren’t getting better, or you are experiencing a fever over 100.4, or other symptoms, contact your healthcare provider for additional treatment. 

If you experience swimmer’s itch multiple times, you may find that your allergic reaction becomes stronger.

How can I avoid swimmer’s itch?

applying ointment to an elbow with a light rash

While staying out of the water is the main way to avoid swimmer’s itch, you can also take a few precautions to reduce your chances of encountering it.

  • Check with your local health officials to see if certain bodies of water have been known to have higher instances of parasites. Avoid going in the water where parasite levels are high. “Doing some homework on which lakes have had cases may help you avoid exposure,” says Dr. McComb.
  • Avoid smaller bodies of water and those with more waterfowl or marshy areas that may contain snails. Wading near the shoreline can also increase your exposure to the parasites.
  • Rinse immediately and vigorously dry your skin after leaving the water. 

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Questions about your symptoms?

If you encounter swimmer’s itch and have questions, call Munson Healthcare Ask-A-Nurse at 231-935-0951. Our registered nurses are answering questions 24 hours a day at no charge to you.

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