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Swimmer's Itch

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KEY POINTS

  • Swimmer's itch is a skin rash caused by a parasite. Your child may get this rash after swimming in a pond, lake, river, or ocean.
  • You may use non-prescription steroid cream or other medicines for your child’s itchy skin.
  • Check with local officials to find out if the parasite is a problem in the area where your child wants to swim.

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What is swimmer's itch?

Swimmer's itch is a skin rash your child may get after swimming in some freshwater lakes and ponds, and sometimes in salt water. A swimming pool is usually safe as long as it is clean and has chlorine. It is also called cercarial dermatitis.

What is the cause?

It is caused by a parasite carried by snails, ducks, geese, and other animals living near the water. When your child swims in the water, the parasite gets into your child’s skin. The parasite can’t be passed from person to person. The parasites soon die while still in your skin.

What are the symptoms?

The first symptom is itching that starts 1 to 2 hours after your child gets out of the water. The itching is usually mild at first. The itching may go away, then return after several hours. The itching is usually more intense when it comes back.

A pinpoint red rash may develop, but your child can have itching without a rash.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your child's symptoms and medical history and examine your child. Tell the provider where your child has been swimming or wading.

How is it treated?

  • Don’t let your child scratch his skin even though it itches. Scratching may break the skin and cause infection. If you think your child’s skin might be infected, contact your healthcare provider.
  • The itch and rash may last just a few hours or several days. It is unusual for the symptoms to last longer than a week unless your child goes back into water contaminated with the parasite.

To help relieve the itching:

  • Put a nonprescription 1% hydrocortisone ointment or cream on small itchy areas. Follow the directions on the package. Do not use hydrocortisone too often or on large areas of your child’s body. It can irritate the skin and make itching worse. Check with your healthcare provider before you use hydrocortisone on babies.
  • Cover affected areas with a clean, wet washcloth. Soak in a bath sprinkled with Epsom salts, baking soda or oatmeal. Make a paste of baking soda and water, and then apply it to the affected areas.
  • Try a nonprescription oral antihistamine such as Benadryl, especially at bedtime if the itching keeps your child awake at night. Use it according to the package instructions. Do not give antihistamines to children under the age of 4. If your child is between the ages of 4 and 6, ask your healthcare provider before giving antihistamines. For children over the age of 6, you can give antihistamines. Do not put antihistamine cream or lotion on your child’s skin if he is taking antihistamine pills.

How can I help prevent swimmer's itch?

Check with local officials to find out if the parasite is a problem in the area where you want to swim. Rinse exposed skin with fresh water immediately after leaving the water. Make sure that your child dries off well using a towel with a rubbing motion as soon as he gets out of the water. This may help prevent the parasite from getting into your child’s skin. Wash your child’s swimsuits often.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2016.4 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2015-07-16
Last reviewed: 2015-05-21
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright © 2016 RelayHealth, a division of McKesson Technologies Inc. All rights reserved.
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