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Duck, duck, you: How a parasite looking for waterfowl in Lady Bird Lake may give you an itch

Kelsey Bradshaw
Austin 360
The chance of landing in the water at Lady Bird Lake while kayaking or paddleboarding is not zero. So, take precautions against swimmer's itch by minimizing your skin's contact with the water.

If you, too, have run for the hills after seeing a viral TikTok video of a paddleboarder's rash that appeared after they stood in Lady Bird Lake, we have potentially comforting news: You're just another duck. 

Let us explain.

The skin problem is likely something called swimmer's itch, and it's not specific to Lady Bird Lake. Poor water quality at that iconic body of water is not to blame, either, said Austin Watershed Protection's Brent Bellinger.

It's doubtful that blue-green algae, the effects of climate change or animal waste in the lake are causing adverse skin reactions, he said. The lake meets the state's requirements for recreation, which takes E. coli concerns into account.

(Also, newcomers might need a reminder that swim is not allowed in Lady Bird Lake, but that's not because of water quality, either. The city banned swimming after drownings in the 1960s.)

Instead, naturally occurring parasitic organisms found in Lady Bird Lake can cause that swimmer's itch. Such organisms live in many bodies of water, not just Lady Bird Lake. Those parasites usually looks to attach to a duck or some other waterfowl.

The tiny organisms, Bellinger explained, will look for another host after spending time in the skin of a snail. The senior environmental scientist (who has also explained to the Statesman the effects of harmful blue-green algae in the past) said the organisms usually encounter humans when they're looking for waterfowl. 

But the organisms can't pierce through a human's skin, and so they end up dying on the surface of the skin, he said. That is what causes the swimmer's itch. 

Swimmer's itch is technically called cercarial dermatitis. The parasites that cause it are the larvae of certain species of schistosomes, which are a kind of flatworm, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Swimming in Lady Bird Lake was banned in the 1960s after multiple drownings, not because of water quality, as some think.

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The TikTok video, from user @tashamarieball, had almost 3 million views as of Thursday. The comment section is full of inaccuracies, too, which the Watershed Protection Department has been correcting for the few Austinites who have called inquiring about swimmer's itch, Bellinger said.

Everyone's immune responses to things like this are different, Bellinger said. Some may just have more sensitive reactions.

"More people are in the water, so there's more chance of exposure and more chance of sensitive people being exposed," he said. 

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Lady Bird Lake is not chlorinated, of course. This means you have to be careful about swimmer's itch and other issues that can arise. If you have an open wound, don't get in the water.

The TikTok user likely was just unlucky and ended up in the wrong spot, Bellinger said. 

To avoid swimmer's itch, make sure you rinse and towel off after being in the water. Minimizing your skin's contact with the water will also help.

To avoid other issues from swimming in unchlorinated waters, make sure you don't have any open wounds before getting in, and don't let anything get in your eyes. 

What to look for

According to the CDC, swimmer's itch symptoms can include:

  • Tingling, burning or itchy skin (can arise within minutes to days)
  • Small reddish pimples (can appear within 12 hours)
  • Small blisters

How you can treat swimmer's itch:

  • Use corticosteroid cream
  • Put cool compresses on the affected areas
  • Take a bath in Epsom salts or baking soda, or soak in a colloidal oatmeal bath
  • Apply baking soda paste, made by stirring water into the baking soda, to the rash 
  • Use an anti-itch lotion

Try not to scratch, and if your symptoms become severe, contact your doctor.