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Swimmer’s ear; swimmer’s itch

July 23, 2012
The Daily News

Mid-summer in the Upper Peninsula means it's beach time.

Nothing can be as relaxing or as refreshing as swimming in a local lake, especially when temperatures reach the 80 to 90-degree range.

There are precautions, however.

Swimmer's ear and swimmer's itch are two potential hazards when swimming.

Swimmer's ear can be very uncomfortable, but it can also be prevented. Swimmer's ear develops after water has been trapped in the ear canal for a period of time.

Bacteria begin to grow in the water which then infects the tissue of the ear.

Medical intervention is necessary if the infection becomes advanced and involves lymph nodes in the neck and throat, and causes the ear to drain a milky white liquid.

Treatment typically involves antibiotic drops for the ears, and sometimes, oral antibiotics. The good news is that swimmer's ear doesn't have to develop.

Upon feeling the fullness in the ear, medical experts suggest administering inexpensive over-the-counter ear drops available in most drug stores and supermarkets to help dry the water and free the affected ear from water blockage.

Solutions are alcohol-based antiseptics prepared just for the purpose of preventing swimmer's ear. You also may consult your physician about home-made preparations that are safe for those who frequently experience water in the ear.

Swimmer's itch is caused by a larval stage of Schistosome flatworms.

These flatworms usually come from certain species of snails and waterfowl, such as ducks and geese.

These flatworms are not human parasites, but they do burrow into human skin in an attempt to complete their life cycle.

Since humans are not the proper hosts, the larvae die. The reaction to the dead larvae beneath the skin produces the Swimmer's itch.

Outbreaks usually peak in midsummer, when parasitic blood fluke numbers are high and people are most likely to be enjoying Michigan lakes.

The majority of people infected have no symptoms and are totally unaware of having been infected. The other 30 to 40 percent suffer the rash and other symptoms.

Swimmer's itch has been documented in Michigan for more than 100 years. Swimmer's itch can affect anyone who has contact with infected water.

Just wading, dangling feet over the side of a fishing boat or diving in for a quick dip can trigger this skin irritation.

Swimmer's itch cannot be spread through person-to-person contact.

Not everyone exposed to the larvae will develop swimmer's itch. It depends on an individual's immune system.

Individuals who are exposed to the larvae for the first time usually do not get the itchy rash.

People who have been exposed before are the ones who usually get it. When the larvae enter the skin, a small red dot may appear and they may begin to itch.

These symptoms should subside for between 10 and 15 hours, but will probably recur, and become extremely intense.

This stage lasts about a week. Many individuals apply skin lotions or creams that minimize itching.

While annoying, swimmer's itch is seldom serious, and can be prevented.

To reduce your chances, experts recommend:

- The itch-causing larvae usually live in shallow waters near the shore. Avoid these areas as much as possible in lakes known to be infected, especially if the wind is blowing toward the shore.

- Do not allow water to evaporate from the skin. Dry yourself thoroughly with a towel as soon as you leave the water. Sometimes, the larvae can be removed before penetrating the skin.

- Do not encourage waterfowl to come to the lake. Do not feed them. Large bird populations increase the likelihood of infection.

Additionally, blue-green algae - also known as Cyanobacteria - are common in rivers, lakes, and ponds throughout Wisconsin.

These algae can form "blooms" that may appear as scum layers or mats in the summer months when there are high nutrient (phosphorous) levels or other favorable environmental conditions. These blooms may appear as scum layers or large floating mats and often have a bluish-green color and an unpleasant odor.

Some species of blue-green algae naturally produce toxic substances. Humans and animals may experience illness or other health effects if there is skin contact with algal toxins or large amounts of the algae are ingested while toxins are being produced.

Scientists who study water quality don't have any sampling tools to accurately predict when algal toxins may be present. Due to this uncertainty, common sense is necessary if algal blooms are present, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources officials said.

Swimming in water with an algal bloom may cause symptoms such as:

- Skin rash.

- Hives.

- Runny nose.

- Irritated eyes.

- Throat irritation

Swallowing or ingesting water with an algal bloom may cause symptoms such as:

- Vomiting, diarrhea, or nausea.

- Headache, throat irritation, or muscle and joint pain.

- In severe cases, paralysis, respiratory failure, or death.

- Seizures or convulsions in your pets.

What should you do to protect yourself?

First, understand that all natural surface waters contain bacteria, algae, viruses, and other pathogens that if consumed may pose health risks to humans, pets, and other domestic animals (cattle, swine, etc.).

Never swallow raw lake or pond water.

Second, if you recreate on or in the water, use common sense to protect your family and pets.



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