Yes, Sea Lice Are as Gross as They Sound — Here's What You Need to Know

Jul 30, 2018 at 3:00 p.m. ET
Girls running into the water on the beach at sunset
Image: Sol De Zuasnabar Brebbia / Getty Images.

Sea lice, also known as "sea bather's eruption," have been making news this year, as they've been found on the shores of Northwest Florida. So, if you or your child are suffering from itchy bites after taking a dip in the ocean, they could be the culprit. The good news is that sea lice can’t survive outside warm saltwater, and the rash is not contagious.

We spoke with doctors about how to recognize symptoms and what you should do if you do come in contact with sea lice.

What are sea lice?

First, it’s important to know what we are dealing with. Dr. Jayesh Madrecha, a physician at the Ochsner Health Center-Driftwood, explains that despite the name, sea lice aren’t actually the typical “lice” that we think of. Sea lice are actually tiny jellyfish larvae that release nematocysts and inject toxins into your skin, he explains. They are in the same animal group that includes coral and sea anemones and are typically found in saltwater. 

More: Summer of the Tick: What You Need to Know About Tick Prevention & Treatment

Although jellyfish eggs aren't exactly what you want on your skin, it’s a bit of a relief to know sea lice are not sea fleas, nor are they related in any way to lice. 

Symptoms

If you've come into contact with sea lice, you may get an intensely itchy red rash with small blisters, Dr. Amy Hammons of Ochsner Health Center-Slidell, tells SheKnows. These symptoms have also been called "marine dermatitis," Madrecha notes.

The rash may also include elevated skin lesions that can appear anywhere on the body but are commonly found in areas covered by swimwear. As larvae become trapped in these regions, the pressure from bathing suits releases the larvae venom, which is what causes the itchy welts, Hammons explains. The rash can last anywhere from two to four days.

Madrecha adds that sea lice are annoying but typically benign and that you can usually spot symptoms within 24 hours of ocean exposure. The rash will about last three to five days “and resolve spontaneously,” Madrecha says. 

More: The Best Water Workouts You Should Try This Summer

Treatment

First, Hammons says if you think you are getting bitten, exit the water immediately. Some people report a prickly sensation while in the water. 

Next, remove your swimsuit and shower thoroughly, Hammons says. Do not shower with the suit on because the pressure will release more itchy venom, and don't wear it again until it's been "properly washed and dried," she recommends.

The rash can be treated with antihistamines but “if you are concerned, you can always go to your family physician or primary care doctor,” Madrecha adds.

Prevention

According to the Florida Department of Health, sea lice can strike intermittently between March and August, but they appear to peak from early April through early July. The organization also stresses that it’s important to listen to the local beach reports and stay out of the water if that's what they advise.

And bad news for those who like to go swimming all covered up in T-shirts: the Florida Department of Health also says that less is more when it comes to wearing clothing in the water, as the larvae get trapped under suits and swim shirts. 

It's also a good idea to always wash and heat-dry your suit after swimming in the ocean just in case any of those little buggers were able to sneak in.

If you live in an area you think may be affected by sea lice, check with your local department of health or news channel for the latest updates.

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