June 9, 2016
Sea Lice Infestation Strikes Florida Beaches

A sea lice infestation is leaving Florida swimmers with annoying rashes and flu-like symptoms. Although the symptoms are rarely dangerous, seabather's eruption can be incredibly uncomfortable, and the possibility may be deterring tourists from visiting beaches along the Sunshine State's Gulf Coast.

Although their name suggests otherwise, sea lice are aquatic creatures, not insects.

There are actually two different organisms that are commonly referred to as sea lice. As explained by the Institute of Marine Research, Lepeophtheirus salmonis, which are copepods, are parasites that are dependent on salmon to survive and complete their life-cycle. Although they can cause life-threatening damage to fish, they do not pose any risk to humans.

As reported by DermNet NZ, the sea lice infestation in Florida is related to "the larval forms of certain sea anemones and thimble jellyfishes." The larvae, which can be as small as a grain of sand, are often difficult to detect. Even worse, they are small enough to make their way through the material of many bathing suits.

Although the sting of an adult anemone or jellyfish is painfully obvious, larvae stings do not cause an immediate reaction. In most cases, swimmers do not begin experiencing symptoms until 24 hours after they are stung.

The allergic reaction to sea lice stings is often referred to as seabather's eruption or ocean itch. The most common symptom is a blistering rash, which can be incredibly itchy. Other symptoms can mimic the flu and may include chills, fever, headache, and nausea.

Although severe reactions are rare, children and those with compromised immune systems are at a greater risk of complications. In most cases, seabather's eruption can be treated with antihistamines and hydrocortisone cream.

According to Florida Health, swimmers are more likely to be stung if the organisms become trapped between their bathing suit and their skin. Therefore, the best prevention is to take the bathing suit off and shower after leaving the water.

In a 1997 study, researchers concluded many cases of seabather's eruption can be prevented by "providing and encouraging the use of shower facilities where people can shower with their bathing suits off, and... advising bathers by posting sea lice warnings during the season."

Although the researchers identified other possible means of preventing a reaction, including using protective creams or lotions, it is unclear whether they are effective.

The researchers also concluded a history of allergies may increase the chances of having an allergic reaction from contact with sea lice.

ABC News reports the sea lice infestation in Florida is particularly strong this season. The Florida Department of Health suggests the degree of infestation can fluctuate depending on "shifts in South Florida's currents." The health department also noted infestations are more likely in Northern Broward County and Palm Beach County, where "the Gulf stream passes closest to shore."

Health department officials said sea life infestations strike Florida most heavily during the months of April, May, June, and July. Although the outbreaks are generally mild, 1995 was a specifically bad year, with the infestation spanning from Jackson to the Florida Keys.

In an effort to reduce the occurrence of seabather's eruption, some Florida beaches have installed showers and are encouraging swimmers to change out of their swimsuit and shower after exiting the water.

Local health officials have also installed warning signs and purple flags on some beaches, which alert swimmers to the presence of sea lice and marine pests.

The sea lice infestation in Florida is disturbing, as the organisms can leave swimmers with flu-like symptoms and an annoying rash. However, the reaction is rarely severe and may be prevented in some cases.

[Image via West Coast Scapes/Shutterstock]