Itchy rashes, a “prickling” feeling in the ocean, discomfort under the bathing suit: Maryland’s Eastern Shore is currently in the throes of a sea lice outbreak, and if you’ve suffered from any of the above symptoms after swimming in the ocean, you may have been bitten by the minuscule larvae. This week, the Ocean City Beach Patrol has responded to several calls from beachgoers who have been affected by sea lice, and recommend that all swimmers rinse off with fresh water after going in the ocean.
What are sea lice?
The sea lice that affect beach-goers are actually jellyfish — real sea lice are parasites that only affect fish, but the jellyfish larvae were misnomered “sea lice” after an outbreak in the 1950s, and the name stuck. They’re also sometimes fittingly known as “seabather’s eruption.”
The sea lice that are stinging swimmers in Ocean City are, in fact, the tiny jellyfish larvae. Florida’s Gulf Coast is a region where sea lice outbreaks frequently occur, and according to the state’s Department of Health, “If pressure occurs from exercising, surf boards, lying on the beach, etc., stinging cells are released causing itching, irritation and welts.” The larvae are also commonly found in hair, in addition to the skin, but they are not related to head lice.
How do I know if I have sea lice?
The larvae make their presence known by causing itching, irritation and welts, and if you suspect you’ve been affected by sea lice, you probably have. Some, but not most, people experience a “prickling” sensation while in the water, but in most cases, sea lice are detected a few hours after being in the ocean when the itching starts.
The itching typically lasts 2-4 days, but can last as long as two weeks. More severe reactions include fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, urethritis and infected blisters, and children may develop a high fever.
How can I avoid sea lice, and what do I do if I have them?
To avoid sea lice: The most obvious way to avoid sea lice is to avoid swimming in areas where their presence is known. If you’re unsure whether your spot on the beach is safe from sea lice, ask a lifeguard. The Florida Health Department also advised swimmers to avoid wearing t-shirts and to cover up with sunscreen, which can reduce contact with the larvae.
If you think you have sea lice: Shower immediately after getting out of the ocean. “Our best advice is to rinse with fresh water,” said a spokesperson for the Ocean City Beach Patrol in a Facebook post. They said they have received several calls from swimmers afflicted with sea lice in the past few days, and that the Eastern Seaboard is currently “experiencing this natural phenomenon.”
Even if you’re not itching yet, it’s always a good idea to take that extra precaution by rinsing off with your bathing suit removed. Because sea lice hide under bathing suits, swimmers should wash their suits thoroughly with detergent and heat try rather than air dry before wearing them again. Antihistamines and topical creams can be used to help stop itching.