Swimmer's itch cases emerge in Crook County waters


Two cases have been confirmed in Walton Lake, but the affliction has been more prevalent in Deschutes County

Photo Credit: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Children were enjoying the water at Walton Lake until they contracted swimmer's itch.

Local resident Faye Taylor remembers her eight grandchildren getting out of the water at Walton Lake itching like crazy.

She and other family members were enjoying a day at lake late last month, when swimmer’s itch struck and their trip was cut short.

“We had to drive home, which took about 45 minutes,” Taylor remembers. “They all jumped in the shower, but after that, they just broke out with this horrible rash that looked like the measles. It was just all over them.”

Cercarial dermatitis, more commonly known as swimmer’s itch, can seemingly strike at any time under the right conditions. Karen Yeargain, the communicable disease coordinator for the Crook County Health Department, explained that the tiny parasites that cause the affliction typically transfer from snails to waterfowl. However, when people enter the water, the parasites will choose them as a host instead.

“They will burrow into whatever they find in the water thinking it is a bird, and sometimes that is a human who is swimming,” she said. “A person may feel a little bit of a tingling to begin with, and then later in the day break out in a very, very itchy rash.”

Yeargain said that depending on the concentration of the larva in the water, the condition can range from just a few spots to a pretty extensive rash.

Swimmer’s itch tends to strike in shallow warm water areas, downwind where high concentrations of vegetation and waterfowl are present.

“Whether there would be parasites there or not depends on how many waterfowl you are seeing,” Yeargain said. “It is not going to be present without the birds.”

She went on to say that the surest way to avoid swimmer’s itch is to stick to cooler, deeper waters.

Swimmer’s itch has been much more prevalent in the Cascade Lakes area this summer, prompting Deschutes County Health Services to issue a public warning. By contrast, the case involving Taylor’s family is only the second to emerge this summer at Walton Lake. Yeargain said that the parasites that cause the affliction can come and go within a day’s time, so unless they are seeing a high concentration of swimmer’s itch, they will not issue warnings.

Nevertheless, she acknowledged that Walton Lake qualifies as an area that brings in the waterfowl that the parasites seek.

For those who contract swimmer’s itch, Yeargain recommends that they take an antihistamine like Benadryl and coat the rash in hydrocortisone cream. Beyond that, people have to just wait it out.

“It is similar to mosquito bites, flea bites, or scabies,” she said. “There is nothing a person needs to do to treat it other than using things to decrease the symptoms.”

Because the human body is not a suitable environment for the parasite, it dies shortly after contact and symptoms will go away in a matter of a few days.

For Taylor’s grandchildren, it took about four days for the discomfort to subside. She said that the antihistamines and hydrocortisone cream helped, but the children still had to occasionally contend with the symptoms.

“They had four days of pretty bad itching,” she said.

What are the symptoms?

• The skin might tingle, burn or itch.

• Small red spots on the skin which begin to itch within 12 hours of exposure.

• Itching may last up to a week or more.

• Symptoms are caused by an allergic reaction, so the more often you swim or wade in

contaminated water, the more severe the symptoms get.

How is it treated?

If you find yourself itching after swimming:

• Get out and towel-off briskly; this helps to remove the tiny larvae that cause the itch.

• Shower as soon as possible after a swim.

• Treatment is supportive only, with-over-the-counter anti-itching ointments or lotions.

• Apply a cool compress to the affected areas.

• Try not to scratch the irritated area of skin because this may cause the rash to become infected.

• If itching becomes prolonged, see your doctor for additional treatment.

How is it prevented?

• Avoid still pools of non-chlorinated water, especially on warm days.

Skin products containing zinc oxide have been found to help prevent Swimmer’s Itch.

• Avoid swimming in water which has a high number of ducks, geese, shore birds or snails.