Summer Better

Itching to Know

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Beach Bummer At Delaware's Rehoboth Beach last week, an observer might have wondered whether Jaws was on the loose. Hardly anyone was in the surf. The few who ventured in got to take home colorful souvenirs: itchy red spots, still visible six days later, wherever skin was exposed. What gives? A perfect storm of marine critters, it seems. The water along the shore "is saturated with jellyfish, parts of the jellyfish and sea lice," said Capt. Kent Buckson of the Rehoboth Beach Patrol. "We definitely have an unusual amount."

Misnomer Sea lice? Well, properly speaking, this plagues only fish. Buckson used the term to describe nailhead-size, translucent-blue crab larvae, a late-July Eastern Shore phenomenon capable of producing a sensation like a bug bite. "They have real sharp spines," said dermatologist William Burke of Eastern Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. "You get them under your bathing suit, and it causes an itch." According to Burke, "sea lice" is used as a catch-all term for various tiny critters that cause rashes under suits or on exposed skin. These include the larvae of the thimble jellyfish ( Linuche unguiculata , for Latin lovers) and the sea anemone Edwardsiella lineate , both of which are more common problems than blue crab larvae, says zooplankton ecologist Deborah Steinberg of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point.

Feeling Rash Dermatologists call the raised red bumps left by the creatures "seabather's eruption." They recommend that bathers shower soon after swimming and wash out their swimsuits to help prevent or minimize the itch. In some cases, doctors recommend antihistamine pills or topical corticosteroids, and Burke says Benadryl (diphenhydramine) can help if itching interferes with sleep. Eruptions usually disappear within a week. Since Delaware and Maryland health authorities don't track this problem, it's unclear how this year's outbreak compares with those in the past or what might have caused it. Steinberg speculated that the recent hot weather may be to blame.

-- Ben Harder

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