Swimming in the Columbia River is a summer rite of passage for many in the Tri-Cities.  Whether you take the boat out to a favorite spot and go for a swim or you prefer wading in the water from the shoreline, the mighty Columbia is a warm weather destination location.  There is always a little risk associated when you become one with nature on its turf.

Howard Amon Park/Google Street View
Howard Amon Park/Google Street View

Diehard campers know what they could face each time they disappear for a weekend at a time, and many who make it a habit to swim in the Columbia are also aware of what can be in the water.  Recently a group of swimmers encountered something new (at least to them) in the river in the area of Howard Amon Park in Richland.  One of them posted about their experience in a local Facebook group.


Not part of the plan when trying to cool off on a hot summer day.

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So What Is In The Water?

If you get bit numerous times while in or around the water, it's a good chance you have swimmer's itch, or cercarial dermatitis.  It presents as a skin rash, and it is a skin rash.  It is the result of a reaction to microscopic parasites in the water.  These parasites are sometimes referred to as 'duck mites' and the way they get into waterways isn't pleasant.


The illustration above lays out how the parasites get into the water and how they can be picked up by humans.  Even though your skin will itch and it may look rough for up to a week, the good news is they can't survive in a human host so they don't usually create a greater issue.  Like everything, it depends on the person and the level of exposure.  Children are more likely to get swimmer's itch than adults, but anyone swimming in infected bodies of water (fresh or saltwater) can contract it.  Another bit of good news is it is not contagious so it won't transfer from one person to another.

What Do I Do If I Get Swimmer's Itch?

If your skin tingles, burns, or itches or it looks like you broke out with pimples or small blisters, it's a good chance you have swimmer's itch.  The CDC has a list of things you can do to treat cercarial dermatitis as most cases do not require a visit to Urgent Care:


  • Use corticosteroid cream
  • Apply cool compresses to the affected areas
  • Bathe in Epsom salts or baking soda
  • Soak in colloidal oatmeal baths
  • Apply baking soda paste to the rash (made by stirring water into baking soda until it reaches a paste-like consistency)
  • Use an anti-itch lotion

Whatever you do, try not to scratch the itch.  it could become infected and at that point you may need to visit your healthcare provider or take that trip to Urgent Care.


More Importantly...Here's How You Can Avoid It


  • Do not swim in areas where swimmer's itch is a known problem or where signs have been posted warning of unsafe water.
  • Do not swim near or wade in marshy areas where snails are commonly found.
  • Towel dry or shower immediately after leaving the water.
  • Do not attract birds (e.g., by feeding them) to areas where people are swimming.
  • Encourage health officials to post signs on shorelines where swimmer's itch is a current problem.

Easier said than done, I know.  If you know people have become infected in an area of the river, letting the Health District know can go a long way in helping others who hit the Columbia to avoid that particular area.

Tips on Staying Cool In Washington State

While some of these might seem obvious, they are always a good reminder :).

Gallery Credit: Aly

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