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If itching to swim, take caution

By Staff | Jul 10, 2008

Public beaches in the Iowa Great Lakes, like this one in Arnolds Park on West Lake Okoboji, remain crowded despite several calls to DNR personnel about swimmer’s itch. Photo by Greg Drees

ARNOLDS PARK – The sought-after waters of the Iowa Great Lakes are literally making swimmers itch this summer to pursue their pleasure. Conditions are optimum in concentrated areas for the parasitic ringworm that causes swimmer’s itch, an annoying consequence to an otherwise pleasurable summer experience.

Several swimmers recently enjoying windward beaches on both Big Spirit Lake and West Lake Okoboji have complained to the Department of Natural Resources and the Dickinson County public health office of itchy symptoms. For others, the rash associated with the condition persisted for several days, and they found relief from over-the-counter medications.

Mike Hawkins, a fisheries biologist with the DNR, says the microscopic ringworm can attempt to burrow into swimmer’s skins when they are in water where the parasites are transitioning between birds and snails.

“Swimmers might have to be more careful of the sites where they choose to swim,” Hawkins said. “It would be wise to avoid beaches where the wind has been blowing in for a couple days or more. And a simple preventative measure is to towel off, rinse off or shower soon after swimming,”

Hawkins said the DNR office in the fish hatchery in Orleans has received “a handful” of calls from beachgoers concerned with swimmer’s itch. “We are forthright with them about the issue,” Hawkins said. “We try to educate, but we want people to know it’s still perfectly safe to swim if they take the proper precautions.”

Mary Dunleavy, public health manager for Dickinson County, said although no persons had sought medical attention at her office, there had been calls about swimmer’s itch. “It’s that time of year,” Dunleavy said. “We usually see the symptoms in people who have been wading or swimming in quiet, shallow water.”

And why the relatively high number of swimmer’s itch reports this season? “It just seems to be a culmination of conditions,” Hawkins said. “We experienced a prolonged, cool spring with low water temperatures, coupled with high water levels and a late growth of aquatic vegetation. Now with the bloom on and warm temperatures, the natural cycle is in full swing.”

Hawkins said the window for contracting swimmer’s itch is relatively short. “A few weeks at the most,” he said, “usually in late June and July.”

Hawkins also said the notion that swimmer’s itch is somehow indicative of impaired water quality is a myth. “It’s actually quite the opposite,” Hawkins said. “The reports have come from Big Spirit Lake and West Lake Okoboji, two lakes of high water quality and healthy aquatic vegetation and snail populations. You won’t find snails in poor water quality habitats.”

People engaged in more active water sports are unlikely to contact swimmer’s itch, since they are engaged in deeper, more open water. But they, too, should take the precaution of rinsing off or showering when finished on the water.

“If people use discretion and common sense, they can still absolutely enjoy swimming at the Iowa Great Lakes,” Hawkins said.