About “Swimmer’s Itch”

It is that time of year again. A number of individuals are reporting that they have contracted “Swimmer’s Itch” after swimming in Copake Lake. Here are steps you can take to avoid developing the rash.

Swimmer’s itch, also known as cercarial dermatitis, is an irritating yet harmless rash caused by the human body’s reaction to a microscopic parasite found in warm, shallow water. These parasites are the tiny larvae of blood flukes, which are hosted by aquatic birds and snails. When the larvae are present in the lake they sometimes mistake us for hosts —which we are not — but they can burrow a tiny bit into our skin and cause an uncomfortable rash.

Who May Develop Swimmer’s Itch?

Anyone who swims or wades in water containing the parasite may be at risk. The conditions in which snails thrive are gravelly shores with wave action, so the potential for snails and swimmer’s itch is everywhere around the lake. Those swimming and/or water skiing in deeper water are less likely to come into contact with the parasite. Children are more likely to develop swimmer’s itch because they tend to spend time in shallow water and they are less likely to towel dry themselves after leaving the water.

Symptoms of Swimmer’s Itch

  • Tingling, burning or itching of the skin, small reddish pimples, or small blisters. Symptoms may occur within minutes to days after exposure.
  • Small reddish pimples appear within about 12 hours. Pimples may develop into small blisters.
  • Itching may occur for several days, but all symptoms usually disappear within a week.

How Do I Reduce the Risk of Developing Swimmer’s Itch?

  • Apply water resistant sunscreen before entering the water. It may help to keep the parasites off your skin.
  • Briskly towel off immediately upon leaving the water — including the skin under your swimsuit — to remove the parasites from your skin.
  • If there is a shower available, shower immediately after toweling off.
  • Swim for short periods of time (10 minutes or less)
  • Do not swim or wade in areas frequented by large numbers of ducks or geese.
  • Avoid swimming near floating algae, aquatic weeds or snails.
  • Do not feed ducks or geese near swimming areas. Increased numbers of water birds in an area can result in increased swimmer’s itch problems.

If you Contract Swimmer’s Itch, Measures to Reduce Itching

Most cases of swimmer’s itch do not require medical attention. Avoid scratching the rash, as it may cause infection. If you have a rash, the CDC (the US health protection agency) recommends trying the following for relief:

  • Corticosteroid cream
  • Anti-itch lotion
  • Apply cool compresses
  • Bathe in Epsom salts or baking soda
  • Soak in colloidal oatmeal baths
  • Apply baking soda paste to rash (mix baking soda with water until it reaches paste-like consistency)

Can Swimmer’s Itch Be Controlled in the Lake?

This is not something that the CLCS is able to “fix” or “eliminate.” Our limnologist, George Knoecklein, has reached out to the DEC for additional information regarding this current outbreak in NYS waters. The best course of action for swimmers is to continue to educate themselves on how to avoid developing this rash.