Swimmer’s itch suspected in Green Lake

A CDC GRAPHIC explains how Cercarial Dermatitis — or swimmer’s itch — is transferred to humans. Norwegian Bay has seen a recent uptick of swimmer’s itch.

by Joe Schulz

Swimmer’s itch appears to be back on Big Green Lake.

Last week Monday, the Green Lake County Health Department received a report of possible swimmer’s itch from an area resident on Facebook. 

Almost immediately, the health department contacted the Green Lake Association (GLA) for help reporting and monitoring cases. 

As of Tuesday, July 7, the GLA had received 26 reports of swimmer’s itch involving Norwegian Bay Dickenson Bay, Quimby Bay, Dodge Memorial County Park and public terraces on the west end and the swimming beach within the Green Lake Conference Center. The reports account for 65 people, with the earliest case being from June 21.

A press release sent that afternoon by the health department noted swimmer’s itch typically is reported during the summer months, and is not dangerous but can be uncomfortable.

Swimmer’s itch — or cercarial dermatitis — is a skin rash caused by an allergic reaction to microscopic parasites released into the water by snails. The parasites also can use ducks and geese as hosts. 

If the parasite comes into contact with a human, it can burrow into skin causing an allergic reaction and rash.

According to the health department, symptoms of swimmer’s itch include: tingling, burning, or itching of the skin; small, reddish pimples; and small blisters.

The department has not posted a sign at Norwegian Bay warning swimmers, but it is reminding residents and visitors to “exercise caution when enjoying the water this summer.” 

“The problem with swimmer’s itch is that the organisms that cause it can live in the water for four to six weeks, and won’t always be in the same area of the water,” said Allison McCormick, environmental health specialist for Green Lake County. “We definitely encourage people if there are reports of swimmer’s itch in a particular area, to maybe avoid it for a little bit.”

To reduce the chances of getting swimmer’s itch, the health department recommends drying off with a towel or showering immediately after swimming, swimming away from shore, avoiding areas where snails have accumulated and to avoid feeding birds.

Most cases don’t require medical attention, and those with swimmer’s itch are advised to not scratch affected areas because scratching can cause the rash to become infected. 

If a rash appears, the department recommends using corticosteroid cream; cool compresses applied to the affected areas; bathing in Epsom salts or baking soda; or using anti-itch lotion.

If itching is severe, health-care providers may suggest prescription-strength lotions or creams to lessen symptoms.

“Any type of freshwater that you swim in — especially during the summer — you’re going to have the potential to get swimmer’s itch,” McCormick said. “If that does happen, let the health department or the GLA know so we can get the word out there.”

Suspected cases can be reported to the GLA at www.greenlakeassociation.org/swimmersitch. 

GLA Communications and Project Manager Jennifer Fjelsted noted swimmer’s itch can happen even in premiere lakes such as Big Green Lake, and that nothing can be done to treat the water once it is reported.

In the meantime, she encourages folks to stay informed and take precautions to reduce the risk.

“Avoiding areas that are known to have swimmer’s itch in the water, or where there are posted signs, is the best practice to avoid getting the associated rash,” Fjelsted said. “Not swimming in shallow, stagnant, warm water is helpful as these are areas where the parasites that cause the rash tend to be in higher concentrations.”

Residents and visitors with questions or concerns may call the health department at 920-294-4070 or follow Green Lake County Public Health and the Green Lake Association on Facebook for updates.

“It happens all over the world, especially in the summer, so we just want to get the word out there and let people know what they can do to reduce the risk of having swimmer’s itch because it’s not fun for anybody,” McCormick said.