The sting of sea lice, says Dr. Joseph Burnett, doesn't happen in the water — it comes once you get out.
The retired dermatology chief at University of Maryland Medical Center, and an expert on jellyfish stings, says it’s only when the tiny yet toxic creatures get trapped inside a wet bathing suit that they sting.
So that means the most important thing to prevent is to rinse out bathing suits after swimming, or to take them off and let them dry. Otherwise, there’s not much else that can be done to prevent the itching and scratching they can induce.
“It happens when you don’t dry [a bathing suit] properly, so you can kill them off,” said Burnett, one of the authors of “Venomous and Poisonous Marine Animals: A Medical and Biological Handbook.”
The pests are more common in places like Florida and New Zealand but were reported by beachgoers in Ocean City last week.
Burnett says “sea lice” is a bit of a misnomer, and a term that is often applied to a variety of dermatologic conditions. What has shown up in Ocean City is probably a jellyfish species commonly known as thimble jellyfish, he said.
Juveniles, which are also capable of stinging, can be less than a millimeter across. Full-grown specimens can be anywhere from 1 centimeter to 10 centimeters long and 2 centimeters across.
They don’t release toxins until coming in contact with skin, and that often doesn’t occur until a person gets out of the water and their wet bathing suit starts clinging, Burnett said.
If necessary, he recommends treating the stings with anti-itch ointments such as Noxzema, Sarna or Bengay. Antihistamines don’t work because the source of the itching isn’t an allergen — it’s a toxin, he said.
But the best thing is to prevent sea lice “bites” in the first place.
“The trick here: when you come out from bathing, take a quick shower and thoroughly rinse and dry the bathing suit,” Burnett said.