Okanagan beaches are popular in the summer but swimmer’s itch is cause for concern among residents.

Okanagan beaches are popular in the summer but swimmer’s itch is cause for concern among residents.

Get ready to fight the itch

Summer in the Okanagan is all about having fun in the sun at the beach.

But like the inevitable sun burn that comes from not protecting your skin, swimmer’s itch is another unpleasant addition to Okanagan summers.

Those drive-you-mad itchy spots can pop up after splashing around in any lake.

“I don’t like to use the word nuisance, but that’s what it is, a nuisance,” said Dr. Paul Hasselback, medical health officer with the  Interior Health Authority.

As irritating as the approximately 10-day rash can be, especially for young children, swimmer’s itch alone isn’t dangerous.

The condition is caused by small worm-like parasites that live in snails. When they leave the snails in search of a second host (usually water fowl or birds) they sometimes inadvertently come in contact with humans, explains Hasselback.

The parasite cannot survive in humans, but the larvae burrowed under the skin is what causes an allergic reaction – hence swimmer’s itch.

The unfortunate part for swimmers in the North Okanagan is that there is no warning at local beaches of the potential for swimmer’s itch.

Carissa Caron found that out the hard way when she took her nieces to Kin Beach last weekend and left with two very itchy and uncomfortable little girls.

“I’m surprised they don’t post signs because if I would’ve seen signs I wouldn’t have gone to the beach,” said Caron.

Hasselback confirms that Interior Health does not test for swimmer’s itch, as the parasite’s existence varies from beach to beach and even from different locations at a single beach due to wind activity.

But Caron says a simple warning would have spared her nieces, and their mother, a lot of discomfort.

“I moved here from Thunder Bay and we have swimmer’s itch at our lakes and they post signs saying there have been reports of this and to swim at your own risk.”

The Regional District of North Okanagan is looking into the possibility of posting signs at local beaches this summer.

But there is some hesitation for fear of scaring off tourists and locals.

“I don’t want to create a concern and drive people away,” said Al McNiven, parks and recreation general manager.

Therefore some research is being done up and down the valley to determine whether swimmer’s itch is a concern and what other locations post signage.

One option is to possibly post precautionary information on how to prevent swimmer’s itch.

Although there is no way to entirely avoid swimmer’s itch, unless you never step foot in a lake or pond, there are a couple of things swimmers can do:

  • Shower immediately after exiting the water;
  • When a shower is not accessible, towling off immediately can also do the trick to rub the parasites off the skin before they have a chance to burrow;
  • Avoid areas with lots of weed growth, there may be more snails around plants, and there may also be more larvae;
  • There tend to be more larvae near the shore, so if there is a pier or wharf to enter the water, doing so may reduce your risk of exposure (do not dive into unknown waters);
  • Applying waterproof sunscreen before swimming may help reduce the number of larvae from penetrating the skin.

“The best thing is for everyone to acknowledge that it does occur,” said Hasselback.

While Caron’s nieces picked up the parasite in June, Hasselback says swimmer’s itch is more common in the warmer months.

“It’s a bit early in the season,” said Hasselback. “We generally see it more in July and August and that could be because that’s when people are going into the water more.”