By Julia Davis - July 1, 2016

crystal lake sunrise

Anyone who has ever had Swimmer’s Itch, or seen anyone with a particularly bad case, tends to become slightly obsessed with it for the next few weeks, or even years, afterward. Some people have their own philosophies of when is a good time to go in, when to avoid the water, and what the best remedies are if you get it. Meanwhile, others are so worried about getting it they have stopped going into Crystal Lake altogether and head to Lake Michigan beach instead. I spoke with CSA Waterfront Director Leslie Buntain-Ritter, CSA Waterfront Committee Chair Ann Burroughs, and Crystal Lake Watershed Association president Joel Buzzell to get a roundup of what is going on this season. As it turns out, there are plenty of ongoing efforts to research and manage Swimmer’s Itch in our lake and our waterfront staff have become very good at predicting when “the itch” will be severe. If you are smart about when you go in the water and make sure to protect yourself, it is possible to have a Swimmer’s Itch-free summer.

The biology:  As you probably know, it’s a bit gross. The Swimmer’s Itch cycle starts when the parasite goes into the Merganser duck; the host. The duck defecates in the water, and the parasite eggs live in the duck’s feces. The eggs then hatch in the water and get inside of the snail. Cercariae (Swimmer’s Itch parasites) are released from the snail and into the water. They swim around looking for a host, and since the parasites are attracted to the lipids and oils in our skin, they swim right up to us. They penetrate a human’s skin, but since a human is not a suitable host, the parasite dies in our skin. The rash we get from Swimmer’s Itch is an allergic reaction from the parasite entering the skin and our immune system attacking it.

The Predictors:  An onshore breeze is the main predictor of severe Swimmer’s Itch in the water. Leslie Buntain-Ritter pointed out that there is a statistics sheet at the Doghouse that anyone can look at. It has a record of the incidences of Swimmer’s Itch and the wind and temperature conditions on any given day. An onshore breeze is almost always a predictor of a high incidence of Swimmer’s Itch. In addition, Leslie goes in and tests the water herself daily before swimming lessons. If she starts feeling itchy, the waterfront staff makes a note on the whiteboard at the beach that Swimmer’s Itch could be severe that day. Swimming lessons are held on land if it seems like the dreaded Itch will be bad. The waterfront staff has worked hard at developing onshore activities to keep young swimmers engaged and still learning swimming skills even when going in the water is not an option. According to her, the bottom line is that the CSA waterfront staff is getting very good at predicting it, especially later in the day. And most days, we don’t have it.

History: Many people don’t remember ever having to worry about Swimmer’s Itch growing up, and they’re right – it wasn’t a problem in Crystal Lake until the 1990s. Ann Burroughs recalls taking her young son to a CSA ecology meeting after the first time he got a severe case. She used him as an “Exhibit A” to show the committee that Swimmer’s Itch was becoming a huge problem. The main theory as to why there wasn’t Swimmer’s Itch until then is that there was a ton of copper sulfate in the lake up until the 1990s. Copper sulfate is a chemical and it used to be poured in the lake to kill snails. We have since learned that copper sulfate is bad for the ecology of the lake, so that practice ended. However, with the end of using the copper sulfate, the rise of Swimmer’s Itch started. And thus began our summer battle with it.

Research: We are still fighting Swimmer’s Itch today. Rather than completely eradicating it, which would be nearly impossible, the current focus is on researching and managing it. 

CLWA 23 June 2016 8896Maddy Messner of Oakland University is back for a second year of research regarding Swimmer’s Itch. She and her research colleagues are taking DNA samples and studying swimmer’s itch predictors. Her research is funded in part by the Crystal Lake & Watershed Association, another key player in the study and management of swimmer’s itch. According to Joel Buzzell, CLWA is funding a $60,000 project will allow us to define the various Swimmer’s Itch factors that contribute to this ongoing problem. This project will include a study on the snail infection rate, which is the best known gauge of the severity of the problem. This project will hopefully help CLWA to secure more funding for upcoming control programs. CLWA is also a founding member of the Michigan Swimmer’s Itch Partnership. Nineteen lakes are members of the partnership and they have actively involved the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Department of Environmental Quality, state senators and representatives, and university researchers from across the county and globally. Freshwater lakes across the globe struggle with Swimmer’s Itch, and it is not a problem the CSA can tackle alone.

Tackling the problem:  Ann described three approaches to managing Swimmer’s Itch: targeting the ducks, targeting the snails, and protecting yourself. There have been various ways of targeting the ducks, both during the season and year round. Many locals, including Joel, have been given flare guns to shoot at Merganser ducks to scare them away. While these flare guns are non-lethal, there have also been efforts to persuade local hunters to shoot the ducks during hunting season. Mergansers are not an endangered species, so hunting them isn’t exactly a problem for the ecology. However, according to Ann they are terrible to eat. There have also been attempts made at relocating their nests, which she reports have been generally unsuccessful and the ducks just keep coming back. The next approach is targeting the snails and trying to disrupt their part of the cycle. Ann said that the typical way to do this is by raking the sand in the swimming area and stirring up the snails, thereby messing up their entire cycle. This process makes the Swimmer’s Itch absolutely terrible for about 24 hours afterwards, but after that period, the incidence of it seems to decrease. The third approach is to properly protect yourself from getting it. Because the parasite is attracted to the oils in our skin, forming a barrier on your skin helps. Slathering on layers of sunscreen on your skin and under your swimsuit – yes, they can get through that – is the best way to prevent it. Leslie recommends using long-lasting sunscreen, which is waterproof for at least 90 minutes. Bullfrog sunscreen or regular sunscreen with a few drops of citronella work best. Taking an antihistamine like Zyrtec, Allegra, or Benadryl in the morning before you go in the water has also been fairly successful. This works because the rash you get from Swimmer’s Itch is an allergic reaction. If you get a bad case, there are treatments available in the Doghouse, such as vinegar and rubbing alcohol. Rubbing these on your skin after getting out may help symptoms. Taking Benadryl after getting swimmer’s itch also helps stop the itching.

Rules to live by:

Do not take a warm bath or put your child in a warm bath to try to stop the itching. Allergic reactions get worse when they’re in warm water

Do not feed the ducks you see on Crystal Lake

Do not go swimming on a day with an onshore breeze

Do report report report. We are the only place on the lake that records data about this. If you get Swimmer’s Itch, report it to a lifeguard and sign the sheet in the doghouse

More information:

Photos by Liv Buzzell -