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Cercarial Dermatitis


Cercariae of Austrobilharzia variglandis, which can cause cercarial dermatitis. Note the forked 'tail' and a pair of 'eye spots' near the anterior end.

Cercariae of Austrobilharzia variglandis, which can cause cercarial dermatitis. Note the forked 'tail' and a pair of 'eye spots' near the anterior end.

Causal Agents

Cercarial dermatitis is caused by the cercariae of certain species of schistosomes whose normal hosts are birds and mammals other than humans. These cercariae seem to have a chemotrophic reaction to secretions from the skin and are not as host-specific as other types of schistosomes. They attempt to, and, sometimes may actually, enter human skin. The penetration causes a dermatitis which is usually accompanied with intense itching, but the cercariae do not mature into adults in the human body. Cases of cercarial dermatitis can occur in both fresh and brackish water environments. One species of schistosome often implicated in cases of cercarial dermatitis is Austrobilharzia variglandis, whose normal hosts are ducks. The snail, Nassarius obsoletus, is the intermediate host for this species and can be found at marine beaches in temperate climates. Cercarial dermatitis should not be confused with seabather's eruption, which is caused by the larval stage of cnidarians (e.g., jellyfish). The areas of skin affected by seabather's eruption is generally under the garments worn by bathers and swimmers where the organisms are trapped after the person leaves the water. Cercarial dermatitis occurs on the exposed skin outside of close-fitting garments.

Life Cycle

Life cycle of Cercarial Dermatitis

Hosts of avian schistosomes can be either year-round resident or migratory birds, including seagulls, shorebirds, ducks, and geese. Adult worms are found in the blood vessels and produce eggs that are passed in the feces The Number 1 On exposure to water, the eggs hatch and liberate a ciliated miracidium that infects a suitable snail (gastropod) intermediate host. The Number 2. The parasite develops in the intermediate host The Number 3 to produce free-swimming cercariae that are released under appropriate conditions and penetrate the skin of the birds and migrate to the blood vessels to complete the cycle The Number 4. Humans are inadvertent and inappropriate hosts; cercariae may penetrate the skin but do not develop further The Number 5.  A number of species of trematodes with dermatitis-producing cercariae have been described from both freshwater and saltwater environments, and exposure to either type of cercaria will sensitize persons to both.

Geographic Distribution

Cercarial dermatitis occurs worldwide with cases reported from every continent except Antarctica. In the United States, cases are commonly reported from the Great Lakes region.

Clinical Presentation

Cercarial dermatitis (swimmer's itch) is a cutaneous inflammatory response usually associated with penetration of the skin by cercariae of bird schistosomes. Symptoms include reddening and itching of exposed skin in the water or immediately after emerging. This is an indication of initial penetration of the cercariae. After a period of approximately 12 hours, pruritic papules may become vesicular. Scratching the affected areas may result in secondary bacterial infections. An interesting note is that previous contact with cercariae can lead to a more immediate and intense immune response.

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  • Page last reviewed November 29, 2013
  • Page last updated November 29, 2013
  • Content source: Global Health - Division of Parasitic Diseases and Malaria
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