Sea Lice, What You Need To Know

Many have been asking and wondering if sea lice will become a problem for Southern California beaches anytime soon and the answer to that is probably unlikely however our planet is constantly changing. We simply can’t rule anything out but if you plan on traveling back east or to the Gulf states, then this guide may be helpful.

Prevalent in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, and along both the east and west coasts of the United States during the summer months, sea lice are probably the most commonly encountered stinging threat to divers and swimmers at the beach.

Sea lice are the microscopic larvae of jellyfish and other ocean stingers which contain the same nematocysts (stinging cells) as mommy and daddy. In many areas of the Gulf and Caribbean the primary culprit causing “sea lice” infestations is the larvae of the thimble jellyfish. These larvae, sometimes half a millimeter in length or smaller, can become trapped between the bathing suit and skin or in crevices like the armpit and compressed, causing the stinging cells to fire.

The larvae are large enough to be visible to the naked eye but become nearly invisible in the water – unfortunately the only reliable method of identifying when sea lice are present is by the appearance of the rash on other swimmers or divers.  During summer months high concentrations of these stinging larvae may float in “clouds” or “blooms” that affect large areas of beach or ocean.

Common symptoms of sea lice stings include an intensely itchy red rash with small blisters and elevated areas of skin.  These painful and unsightly lesions may appear anywhere on the body but are often concentrated in areas covered by swimwear as large numbers of larvae often become trapped in these regions.  Severe reactions to sea lice exposure may include fever, chills, headaches, nausea and vomiting, especially in children.  Extreme allergic reactions may require hospitalization in rare cases.

If you are unfortunate enough to encounter sea lice while swimming, your first sign that something is amiss may be an itching or burning sensation in affected areas of your skin.  If you suspect you’ve been exposed to sea lice, exit the water immediately, remove your bathing suit, and shower thoroughly. Do not rinse with fresh water while still wearing the suit as this will cause the stinging cells still in the fabric to fire, releasing even more venom. Do not wear the same swimsuit again until it’s been thoroughly machine washed and dried.

Symptoms of sea lice exposure often do not appear for six hours or more after the exposure and may last from two days to two weeks.  Rashes and blisters from sea lice stings may be very painful and can become infected from repeated scratching.  Common home remedies to relieve the itching and burning from sea lice stings include vinegar and meat tenderizer.  Hydrocortisone cream and oral antihistamines such as Benadryl may help to relieve the itching.  Topical antibiotic cream may be applied to reduce the chance of infection.

Sea lice “season” generally runs from April through August (although they may appear at any time of year) and affects most of the coastal United States, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean islands, Mexico, and South America.  Locally heavy sea lice outbreaks are common occurrences along both Florida coasts in the summer months.  Mexico’s popular tourist destinations including Cancun and Cozumel tend to experience particularly heavy concentrations of sea lice.  Some beaches in the US, Mexico, and the Caribbean utilize a flag warning system to alert bathers to sea lice danger during periods of severe outbreaks.

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