Get to the Bottom of What’s Causing Your Skin Irritation

Get to the Bottom of What’s Causing Your Skin Irritation

The culprit may be lurking in your own backyard, or even inside your home.

While poison ivy is probably the most well-known itch-inducing plant, a multitude of other plants, as well as many insects, can irritate your skin.

“The skin can be affected by a wide variety of things you might find in your backyard, or even inside your home,” says board-certified dermatologist Amy Chen, MD, faad, an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine in Canton, CT. “While there are simple precautions that you can take, you have to be aware of what you might run into so you can protect yourself.”

An Ounce of Prevention  

“The best way to avoid skin irritation is to identify the plants and insects that can cause adverse reactions and avoid exposure to them,” says board-certified dermatologist Julian Trevino, MD, faad, professor and chair of dermatology at Wright State University in Dayton, OH. “If you think you’ll be coming into contact with something that could cause skin problems – either because it has affected your skin in the past or you have heard it can cause a reaction – you can take preventive measures.”

For example, Dr. Trevino says, people can prevent rashes from poison ivy and poison oak by keeping away from plants with “leaves of three.” For additional protection while hiking, gardening, or working in areas where these plants are prevalent, he also recommends wearing protective clothing and applying a barrier cream to the skin. Those who have been exposed to poison ivy, oak, or sumac can limit the resulting rash by immediately rinsing the affected skin area.

Beware of Irritants Lurking in Unexpected Places  

“People may think they’re more likely to develop a rash while hiking in the woods than enjoying a drink by the pool,” Dr. Trevino says, “but if that drink happens to be a margarita or a beer with a lime, they could end up with itchy red skin at the end of the day.” The combination of ultraviolet radiation and exposure to certain plants, including citrus fruits like lemons and limes, may result in a condition called phytophotodermatitis, which causes a rash followed by hyperpigmentation. To avoid this condition, Dr. Trevino suggests rinsing the skin and reapplying sunscreen after eating or drinking citrus while outside in the sun.

According to Dr. Trevino, you may not even need to leave your home or garden to develop a plant-induced rash, as several common plants and foods found in the home and garden may cause skin reactions. Some flowers and bulbs – including chrysanthemums, Peruvian lilies, and tulip and daffodil bulbs – have chemicals that can irritate the skin or result in an allergic reaction. Additionally, some plants used in spicy foods, like chili peppers and horseradish, have chemicals that can cause skin irritation.

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Other common plant-related skin problems are injuries from the spines or thorns of plants like cacti and thistles. Additionally, plants with small nettles or hairs can cause hives by releasing irritating chemicals into the skin. Dr. Trevino suggests avoiding contact with these plants if possible and using protective clothing, like gloves, when handling them.

Steer Clear of Insects That Sting  

Plants aren’t the only living things in your neighborhood that can irritate your skin; bites and stings from several common insects may result in redness, bumps, and itchiness as well.

Protective clothing, like pants and long sleeves, can help prevent insect bites, as can spraying clothing, shoes, and camping gear with the repellant and insecticide permethrin. Dr. Trevino also recommends staying indoors at dawn and dusk, when insects are most likely to bite, and using insect repellants that contain DEET, picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus. If a biting bug lands on your arm, it’s best to flick it off with a finger, as squashing it on the skin could cause it to bite, resulting in skin irritation or injury.

“Taking some simple precautions can go a long way toward preventing skin problems caused by plant exposures and insect bites,” Dr. Chen says. “If you do develop a rash that doesn’t go away, see a board-certified dermatologist, who can help determine the cause and recommend an appropriate treatment.”

Itchy skin? Try These Tips for Relief

  • Apply a cold, wet cloth or ice pack to the skin that itches. Do this for about five to ten minutes, or until the itch subsides.
  • Take an oatmeal bath. This can be very soothing, especially for blisters or oozing skin due to chickenpox, hives, poison ivy, or sunburn.
  • Moisturize your skin. Always choose a moisturizer free of additives, fragrances, and perfumes. 
  • Apply topical anesthetics that contain pramoxine. 
  • Apply cooling agents, such as menthol or calamine. You could also place your moisturizer in the refrigerator to help achieve this cooling effect.

Source: American Academy of Dermatology,

This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, Spring/Summer 2017.