In an epidemic focus in northern Senegal, adults had lower intensities of infection than adolescents, a phenomenon that could not be attributed to immunity acquired over the previous 10–15 years of exposure to the parasite because all age groups had had the same number of years' experience of the worm. This article considers whether this pattern could have been because of higher levels of exposure to the parasite in younger age groups. Personal contact with infected water was recorded using a questionnaire in Schistosoma mansoni foci not more than 3 years old and in another, 10-year-old focus. Many aspects of contact (e.g. frequency, duration or time of day of contact) may contribute to the number of encounters with infective cercariae (true exposure), so various assumptions regarding the relationship between water contact and true exposure were tested resulting in a range of exposure indices. People reported a mean of 4.4 separate contacts, and spent a median of 57 min per day in water. Patterns of water contact differed depending on the exposure index used, e.g. considering duration, males spent a longer time in water than females (P < 0.001). But using frequency, females had more contacts with water than males in most villages (P < 0.001). Generally, exposure levels dropped as people become aged (P < 0.001) and residents of the older focus were more exposed than residents of other foci (P < 0.002). Intensity of (re)infection was not related to exposure either alone or in models incorporating age, sex and/or village irrespective of the index used. There is therefore evidence that age, sex and place of residence determine exposure but none to suggest that exposure had an influence on the relationship between these factors and intensity of infection. We propose therefore that in this population other factors have principal importance in determining intensity of infection.