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Lake itch arrives early

Reports of lake itch in Douglas County included Darling, Geneva, Carlos, Mary, and L’Homme Dieu. These reports are about a month earlier than they were in 2013. (Courtney Bitzan/Echo Press)

In the past week, reports have come in of several area lakes being infected with lake itch, including Darling, Geneva, Carlos, Mary and L’Homme Dieu. These reports are about a month earlier than last summer.

Lake itch, also known as swimmer’s itch, is a temporary rash caused by an allergic reaction to microscopic parasites called cercariae carried by waterfowl, semi-aquatic mammals and snails.

These parasites are released by infected carriers into the water where they can come in contact with people and burrow into their skin.

Itching and welts are not caused by the organism living under the skin, but by an allergic reaction. A similar occurrence is the red bumps humans receive from mosquito bites.

Not everyone is sensitive to lake itch, though. Some people show no symptoms, even when others swimming at the same time and place break out severely. Much like poison ivy, however, one’s sensitivity to lake itch can increase throughout their life.

Sandy Tubbs, director at Douglas County Public Health, says lake itch is not something they test for, treat or monitor.

“I’m unaware of any public health department that tests the water for itch,” Tubbs said. “From what I understand, it can be present one day and gone the next, so warnings may not be very accurate.”

Tubbs said it’s uncertain as to why itch has emerged early this summer.

The cercariae parasites live for only a day or so and typically swim around the upper few inches of lake water. Wave action and currents tend to bring the organism to the shoreline.

Though it is unknown whether the high water levels Douglas County is experiencing directly affects the amount and severity of lake itch in the waters, the conditions brought with the water levels does push more of the parasites to the shore.

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the best ways to reduce the odds of getting lake itch while swimming includes staying out of water near the shore, applying a water repellent substance such as waterproof sunscreen, and drying off with a towel as soon as getting out of the water.

The University of Minnesota Extension also adds to be sure to wash with soap and fresh water after swimming and to change into dry clothes as soon as possible.

Tubbs agrees that these are the best ways to avoid breaking out due to lake itch along with any other form of preventative care.

If you do believe you have lake itch, contact your clinic to confirm. At that point, over-the-counter products such as hydrocortisone cream should be applied as directed before seeking medical care.

Annie Harman
Annie Harman is a reporter for Echo Press and The Osakis Review. She grew up in Detroit Lakes and graduated from the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire with a degree in print journalism and history in May 2012. Follow her on Twitter at annieharman
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