Deschutes County issues 'swimmer's itch' lake advisory

Health official says challenging to track parasite

South Twin Lake getting signs for Swimmer's Itch

BEND, Ore. - Deschutes County health officials issued an advisory Tuesday about reported cases of "swimmer's itch" at Cascade lakes and said warning notices would be posted at the lakes where incidents have been reported.

However, the county advisory did not specify which lakes, and said the reports had not yet been confirmed. 

"The problem is for us is that it's really hard for us to tell which lakes have it and which lakes don't," said Thomas Kuhn, a program manager with Deschutes County Public Health.

"A lake could have it one week, and then not have it the next week," he said. "So it's something that you just have to keep an eye on and look for patterns."

Forest Service officials confirmed that they will be putting up signs at South Twin Lake, warning visitors of the potential of catching swimmer's itch while in contact with those waters.

Here's the county's advisory, in its entirety:

Deschutes County Health Services has received several reports of rash and bite-like symptoms from persons recently bathing at area lakes.  Although none of these reports have been confirmed, it is likely that they may be suffering from "Swimmer's Itch."

Swimmer's Itch is caused by an allergic reaction to parasites found in some birds and mammals.  Humans can be exposed to the parasites when working, wading or swimming in lakes and streams. The parasites are released into fresh and salt water from infected snails.

Rather than finding a host bird or animal, the parasite burrows into the skin of a swimmer, causing an allergic reaction and rash.  It cannot be spread from person to person and symptoms may last up to a week. 

Deschutes County Health Services is working with the U.S. Forest Service to post notices at associated lakes. 

What are the symptoms?

• The skin might tingle, burn or itch.

• Small red spots on the skin which begin to itch within 12-hours of exposure.

• Itching may last up to a week or more.

• Symptoms are caused by an allergic reaction, so the more often you swim or wade in contaminated water, the more severe the symptoms get.

How is it treated?

If you find yourself itching after swimming:

• Get out and towel-off briskly; this helps to remove the tiny larvae that cause the itch.

• Shower as soon as possible after a swim.

• Treatment is supportive only, with-over-the-counter anti-itching ointments or lotions.

• Apply a cool compress to the affected areas.

• Try not to scratch the irritated area of skin because this may cause the rash to become infected.

• If itching becomes prolonged, see your doctor for additional treatment.

How is it prevented?

• Avoid still pools of non-chlorinated water, especially on warm days.

• Skin products containing zinc oxide have been found to help prevent Swimmer's Itch.

• Avoid swimming in water which has a high number of ducks, geese, shore birds or snails.


Here's Dan McCarthy's story from our late Monday newscasts:

NewsChannel 21 on Monday received complaints from numerous swimmers at several high Cascade lakes over the Fourth of July weekend.

The issue? At least some have been told by doctors that they contracted a malady known as "swimmer's itch."  It's an allergic reaction to parasites typically found in freshwater ponds.  It can cause extreme itching, followed by widespread bumps on the skin.

"There were six of us there, but only four of us went into the water," said Jessica Frettinger. "All four of us were covered head to toe in bumps."

Frettinger and her family went for a swim at South Twin Lake last week.  And what started as a relaxing dip in the water turned into an itchy situation. 

"We got out and we were all super-itchy, and it was weird," she said. "So we all went home and showered and stuff. And the next day, I was covered in bumps."

Frettinger went to a dermatologist in La Pine the following day.  The prognosis?  Cercarial dermatitis.

Known as Swimmer's Itch, it's caused from microscopic parasites from freshwater areas that burrow into the skin of swimmers or waders. 

But Frettinger had never experienced it in years of swimming at local lakes.

"I've swam in every lake around here, and the river many times, and I've never had parasite problems," she said.

Frettinger's mother said she spoke with a representative from Twin Lake Resort following the doctor's diagnosis.  She said the representative confirmed the existence of bacteria in the lake water. However, they weren't interested in sharing that information.

"We called them and said, are you guys going to put up signs or anything?  And (the representative) said, 'We don't want it to affect our season.'" We were unable to reach a resort official Monday for comment.

A few reports also mentioned Crane Prairie and Wickiup reservoirs, but most of the focus was on Twin Lakes, primarily South Twin.

In reaching out to Deschutes County health officials, we were told they were meeting Monday to discuss the parasite problem.  However they have yet to confirm that's what it is.

But for those who were there and still scratching, the message is clear; They urge swimmers to stay out of the water at Twin Lakes, warning sign or not.

"People have their kids swim in water, their babies," Frettinger said. "Everybody goes to the lake during the summer.  And they don't have any signs to warn people about this. It's kind of scary."

Experts say most swimmer's itch symptoms subside within a week -- but if you experience diarrhea or a cough, you should see a doctor.

We will update this story as we receive more information.

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