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What to know about the itchy pests called sea lice

You might’ve thought you only had to worry about lice while on dry land. Unfortunately, I’m here to tell you that those itchy insects can get to you while you’re enjoying a nice dip at the beach too. That’s right — if you weren’t already aware, there’s such a thing as sea lice, and they appear to be running (or rather swimming) rampant all over the popular Gulf Coast beaches this summer.

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While they’re already pretty common around the Gulf, because sea waters have been particularly warm this year, they’ve been more prevalent this year. They’re also not exactly lice, at least not in the way we think of them. They’re actually the larvae or eggs of jellyfish, and they contain the same nematocysts that their parents do, which allows them to sting. And while their sting is not nearly as painful as adult jellyfish, it can cause a pretty significant, itchy rash to erupt all over bathers’ skin.

The most common sea lice or jelly fish larvae in the Gulf Coast are from thimble jellyfish. And the worst part about them is that they’re practically invisible when they’re in water. Unless you’re unlucky enough to find yourself swimming in groups of them (called “blooms”), they’re virtually undetectable — that is until rashes start appearing on you or your fellow swimmers.

Will you have to spend hours picking gross lice off your skin like you do with regular hair lice? No, but the symptoms they cause aren’t much more fun. Since they tend to get trapped near the elastic of your swimsuit, most people get rashes around their upper legs, shoulders, backs and waists. This rash is appropriately called the seabather’s eruption because, well, just look at it.

Image: Florida Health

The best way to deal with this sea lice situation is to prevent the problem all together. There are certain creams like Safe Sea that allegedly repel sea lice and other jelly fish stings that you can wear before getting in the water. Wearing thick, waterproof sunblock like zinc oxide is also known to keep them at bay. Scientists also recommend removing your swimsuit immediately after swimming in the ocean, and taking a hot shower as hot water kills the larvae. You should also wash your swimsuit in hot water before wearing it again to make sure all the larvae are no more.

If you’re near a nude beach and comfortable bearing all, the quintessential way to keep these little critters from stinging you is to not wear a constrictive bathing suit at all. That way they can’t get trapped and fight back by covering your body with tiny, itchy bumps.

If you’re unfortunate enough to get stung, you can look forward to a super itchy rash illustrated above, which is made up of hundreds of tiny bumps. Severe reactions are rare, but can include nausea, vomiting, chills and headaches, and may denote an allergy, in which case you should go to the hospital immediately. The rash typically lasts two to four days, but can hang around for as long as two weeks.

Hydrocortisone cream and oral antihistamines such as Benadryl may help to relieve the itching, as does oatmeal baths and flushing the affected areas with hot water. Yes, it may hurt at first, but that’s better than constant itching for two to four days, am I right? You can also try scraping the rash with a credit card, sand paper, a loofa or pumice stone (ow).

Or scratch all of this (pun intended), and just stay out of the water when those purple jelly fish signs go up.

More: ‘Super lice’ are popping up in 25 states: Is yours on the list?

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