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Itching to go to the lake this summer? Beware of swimmers itch

TORONTO If youre itching to go swimming at the lake this summer, beware: you could leave with a far worse itch than you had when you arrived.

TORONTO If youre itching to go swimming at the lake this summer, beware: you could leave with a far worse itch than you had when you arrived.

Swimmers itch is a problem that plagues swimming holes across the country every summer, and the number of cases tends to peak right around now, when the weather is at its hottest and people are escaping to the beach in droves.

The unpleasant affliction is caused by parasites called schistosomes that use birds as their hosts. The parasites eggs are expelled from the bird in its feces. The larvae then enter snails and feed off them until they are mature enough to re-enter a bird host.

The parasites can only survive in water for about 24 hours as they move from snail to bird, and it is during this short period of the schistosome life cycle that they can enter human skin, explained Harvey Blankespoor, a swimmers itch expert with Hope College in Holland, Mich.

Symptoms of swimmers itch include mild itching and tiny red spots as the parasites enter the skin. Then, about 24 hours later, an infected person will experience severe itching and raised red bumps, or pauples, that can be the size of quarters. It will only affect the parts of the body that came into contact with the water if you only waded in up to your waist, you will not experience itching on your upper body and can last up to seven days. Fair-skinned people and children are particularly susceptible to it, although its not known why.

Once youve been in water affected by swimmers itch, theres not much you can do about it, said Blankespoor, who has been researching the affliction for 30 years and still fields between 30 and 40 reports of cases in both Canada and the U.S. every day.

Theres an erroneous idea that if you towel off youre not going to have a problem, and thats just not true, said Blankespoor. Once youve come down with swimmers itch, all you can do is take an antihistamine or rub a cortisone-based cream on the affected spots and hope for the best, he added.

Blankespoor has had swimmers itch several times in his years of research and he describes it as an intense itch that makes him desperate for relief.

It bothers me so much that I take a sharp thing, like a knife, and just scratch the tip of (a pauple) until it bleeds a bit and its over. But I cant advertise that to children, he said with a laugh.

If someone has reported a case of swimmers itch from a particular lake in Canada, warning signs will usually be posted, said Nicole Armstrong, a spokeswoman with Manitoba Water Stewardship.

The beach is posted with a sign, so that lets people know that some people have developed a rash after swimming in that lake and they may want to choose not to swim here, she said.

Armstrong added that anywhere between three and 17 Manitoba lakes are affected by swimmers itch each year.

Jerry Capko, manager of the Safe Water Program for the district health unit of Simcoe-Muskoka, one of Ontarios most popular vacation spots, said people should also take their own precautions to avoid swimmers itch.

They can look around and see if there are shorebirds in the area, or snails in the water. If thats the case, then the possibility exists that youre going to pick up swimmers itch, said Capko. If you dont have birds, if you dont have snails, youre likely not going to get it.

But all hope is not lost once a lake becomes affected by swimmers itch, said Blankespoor.

There are several options for reducing the likelihood of infection, including physically removing snails from the shoreline, where they tend to congregate, he said, adding that he once removed 2,840 snails in four hours from one lake.

Another option is to trap the offending birds, feed them a pill to kill off the parasite, and then move them to another lake, said Blankespoor.

11:33ET 06-08-07

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