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Itch itch, what a relief it is

WORTHINGTON -- Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, consider this: Other than the world famous great white shark named "JAWS" what else in the water can make your swim less enjoyable?

The shark in that movie kept many a swimmer awake at night. What I am referring to is a lot smaller and can't swallow you in two bites, but if you have a run-in with it you will not like the outcome -- although it is not fatal.

What I am referring to is a microscopic parasite that wants to burrow into your skin. It is called cercarial dermatitis, or swimmer's itch.

Swimmer's itch has an interesting story. The microscopic parasite normally uses birds like ducks and geese and other small animals like muskrats and raccoons as its host. It lives in their blood streams where it lays eggs that are released into the water through the feces of these animals.

The parasite then attaches to snails in the water and lives there until it is released as microscopic larva. Then, it goes looking for another bird. What an interesting life cycle, from bird to snail and back to bird. What an odd way to reproduce.

It is a parasite, so it makes sense that it has a host. My research did not say if the used host was, in any way, damaged from providing hosting services.

So what happens when you get swimmer's itch? While the parasite is out floating around in the water looking for a bird or other small mammal, it runs across you out wading or swimming and says to itself, "Not a bird or muskrat, but I will give it a try anyway."

The parasite burrows into your skin and when it finds you an unsuitable host, it dies almost right away.

This is when the itching starts. You might see any of the following symptoms: redness and rashes to differing degrees, small red spots and even small blisters. Itching these can lead to bacterial infections.

The skin reaction is an allergic response to infection, so the more often you swim in infested waters and the more often you are exposed, the more likely the skin response will increase in intensity.

Here's the good part -- not really. In the age of modern medicine there is little you do to relieve the symptoms of swimmer's itch other than to apply products like Calamine Lotion. You can also try a baking soda paste and apply that, or soak in Epsom salts.

The resulting rash of swimmer's itch usually lasts about two weeks and there are a few things you can do to reduce your chances of getting this really unfortunate and undesirable cause of your relentless desire to scratch all over.

The best way to avoid swimmer's itch is to not go swimming in lakes and ponds. Pools and other chemically-treated areas will not transmit this parasite.

If you are going to be in the lake, stay out of the shallowest parts. This super shallow water has the highest concentration of swimmer's itch parasites.

Kids are the ones most prone, as they spend the most amount of time wading and sitting in the shallow water. Antihistamines can also be taken to relieve symptoms.

Use a towel and dry off thoroughly every time you leave the water and stay away from waters that have the most snails. When I read this, I wondered how I was supposed to know which bodies of water had the most snails in order to avoid them. Swimmer's itch is not transferable from person to person. Swimming on the side of the lake where the waves are pounding in all day will also increase the odds that swimmer's itch potential exists.

I have not talked to anyone who has caught the famous itch in Nobles County or the surrounding area yet this year, but there have been some reports from the Iowa Great Lakes area.

I haven't had swimmer's itch for many years, but the chiggers always seem to be able to find me. That is an entirely different story and the subject for another day.

Enjoy a swim in an area lake, but remember to grab a towel and dry off good each time you head to dry land for a bit of liquid refreshment.

Scott Rall is the Daily Globe's outdoors columnist. His column can also be read weekly at