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Be in the know about water-related illnesses

Published in Family Medicine, For the Health of It Author: Penelope Smith,MD Author: Penelope Smith, MD

Summer is too brief in Minnesota. So when the weather is warm enough, it only makes sense that everyone wants to spend time in the water. It doesn’t matter if it’s a splash park, pool or lake. As long as it’s wet, it’s all fun!

Unfortunately, there are a couple of illnesses that can be acquired from the water. While they may not be common, it’s still good to be familiar with them, their symptoms and what you and your family can do about them. Here are three water-related illnesses to be aware of this summer:

Swimmer’s itch

  • What is it? A temporary skin rash caused by parasites carried by ducks and snails. The parasites cannot live on humans — but your body can have an allergic response to it. Not unlike when you touch poison ivy.
  • How to prevent? Don’t swim in lakeshore locations where ducks frequent. Also, drying off with a towel as soon as you get out of the lake will help keep the parasites away from your skin.
  • When to contact your provider? If you have a widespread allergic response, your health care provider can confirm if swimmer’s itch is the cause and recommend ways to relieve the pain.
  • Where can I learn more? Minnesota Department of Natural Resources: Swimmer Itch Information

Swimmer’s ear

  • What is it? An infection caused by water that stays in your ear after swimming. Like any infection, it can cause fevers if it gets severe.
  • How to prevent? You can wear silicone earplugs while swimming to prevent water from getting in your ears. After swimming, you can also dry your ears using a hairdryer on low power. You also can rinse them using isopropyl alcohol or acetic acid solution ear drops. Both of these are available over-the-counter.
  • When to contact your provider? Your doctor may be able to prescribe ear drops to fight the infection. In order to completely heal, you may need to keep your ears dry while treating. So no swimming and caution when bathing during that time.
  • Where can I learn more? From the American Academy of Pediatrics: Swimmer’s Ear in Children or Swimmer’s Ear in Teens

Blue-green algae (Cyanobacteria)

  • What is it? Quite a few lakes in Minnesota have blue-green algae blooms from time to time during the summer. But their frequency can vary with changes in the weather. The algae can cause an allergic reaction when contacting the skin and cause illness when ingested.
  • Who is at risk? Drinking or ingesting lake water with the algae can be dangerous for children, due to their small size. Last summer, several dogs also died following exposure.
  • How to prevent? When in doubt, stay out of water with blue-green algae. And don’t drink or blow bubbles in lake water. One should also get in the practice of rinsing with clean water after lake swimming.
  • When to get medical help? Ingesting blue-green algae can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. It also can cause breathing difficulties and severe allergic reactions. Get emergency medical attention for your child if he or she shows any of these symptoms.
  • Where can I learn more? Minnesota Department of Health: Blue-Green Algae: If in doubt, stay out.