Can You Really Pick Up Lice At The Beach?
In June, reports surfaced that infestations of “sea lice” were erupting all across beaches along the Gulf Coast—leaving swimmers complaining of an irritating, itchy, red rash among other symptoms.
Seabather’s eruption (SBE), known commonly as sea lice, is likely responsible for much of the outbreak. It refers to stings from baby sea anemones and thimble jellyfish, which are nearly invisible to the naked eye.
But are you really at risk if you’re headed off to swim in the warm waters this summer?
Related: The Better Man Project From Men’s Health—2,000+ Awesome Tips on How to Live Your Healthiest Life
Despite what the news reports say, you actually have no greater chance of getting SBE this year.
That’s because this year’s “outbreak” is no more worrisome than prior years, says Mara Gambineri, communications director at the Florida Department of Health.
If you’re swimming in waters off the Eastern coast of Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, or the Caribbean Sea—where the sea creatures live— between March and August, it always remains a legitimate concern.
In fact, you have about a 1 in 6 chance of coming down with it, according to a study of more than 700 Florida beachgoers from the Palm Beach County Public Health Department.
Related: How to Treat a Jellyfish Sting
Can You Prevent Sea Lice?
Unfortunately, if you’re swimming in those areas, there’s not really much you can do to prevent SBE stings—the larvae is nearly invisible under water, so you can’t see them to avoid them.
Your beach may put up purple flags, though, to indicate increased marine life activity. (Of course, if there’s no flag, that doesn’t assure the sea creatures aren’t in the waters.)
The tiny jellyfish will zap any exposed skin. They often get trapped under bathing suits, potentially resulting in a swimsuit-shaped rash underneath, says Jeffrey S. Fromowitz, M.D., medical director at Dermatology of Boca in Boca Raton, Florida.
Related: Why Scratching an Itch Only Makes It Worse
Surfers may have better luck at avoiding them, though.
That’s because skintight wetsuits can help protect you, since they cling so tightly that the sea creatures will have trouble getting between the suit to your skin, he says.
How to Treat Your Sea Lice Rash
Since avoiding it is difficult, you’re better off being prepared on how to treat the sting.
The earliest sign of SBE is a tingling under your bathing suit while you’re still in the water.
It progresses to an itch over the next few hours, typically erupting into a red rash comprised of small, raised, hard and soft bumps or blisters.
If you think you’ve been stung, take off your bathing suit and toss it in the washing machine on hot, or rinse thoroughly in vinegar—otherwise, the invisible stinging cells may hang around on your bathing suit until the next time you put it on, Dr. Fromowitz says.
Then, rinse your body with fresh water and diluted vinegar, which can help neutralize stinging cells that may be lingering and haven’t yet fired.
Next, reach for an ice pack to place over the area. Afterwards, you can take an antihistamine and ibuprofen, as well as dab on an OTC hydrocortisone ointment to help with the pain and itch, he suggests.
Related: Why Your Skin Itches When You Workout
About 20 percent of people will have a severe reaction, meaning they’ll see systemic symptoms such as fever, chills, and stomach aches, Dr. Fromowitz adds.
If this is the case, or if the rash is widespread on your body, head to a dermatologist for a topical steroid.