Sea lice have been making headlines across the world as they invade beaches along the Florida Panhandle. But what exactly is “sea lice” and how can we avoid the notoriously itchy wrath?

Sea lice, also known as sunbather’s eruption, is a rash caused by jellyfish larvae that can be found along shorelines in higher numbers during the summer. They are almost impossible to detect. Until there is a report of a rash, lifeguards have almost no sign of their presence. So if you see a flag or a sign up at your favorite beach, you’ll most certainly want to avoid the water. 

Sea lice reaction occurs when the creatures get stuck between your skin and your bathing suit. The itchy red rash and small blisters appear anywhere up to six hours after leaving the water and can last for a couple of weeks. Some also experience more severe reactions, from fevers and chills to headaches and nausea.

If you are still at the beach and think you have been exposed to sea lice, Florida health officials recommend showering in hot water. Cold water and vinegar actually cause the stinging sensation to worsen, so avoid these methods if possible. Also, try to change clothes immediately or wash your swimsuit with detergent to reduce the risk of further rash. If you are not near facilities to clean up, you lightly “fan” away the creatures with a light sand dusting or by softly running the edge of a credit card across your skin.

Once you get home, there are many methods to treat the itch that comes from a sea lice rash—from oral antihistamines to hydrocortisone creams. If the symptoms get worse or haven’t improved within two weeks, visit a doctor for more extensive treatment.

And here’s another reason to lather up with sunscreen before you head to the beach: Certain studies have found that most commercial sunblocks not only protect you from the sun, but they also provide enough of a barrier to prevent a sea-lice rash.

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