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Plants That Cause Skin Irritation

Topics: General


This time of year, many of you are likely spending a lot of time outdoors. Whether in the garden, hiking on nature trails, or going on picnics, being in nature exposes you to several plants that can cause skin irritation that you should avoid.  

One of the most commonly known plants for skin irritation is Poison Ivy. It is known to cause a red burning rash that can last several weeks and in severe cases, can have boils that ooze. Not everyone is "allergic" to poison ivy though; only 50% of adults are known to have sensitivity. You can get it from direct contact like touching any part of the plant, inhaling it when it is being burned, or even indirectly from a pet, gardening tools, or clothing that has been exposed.   

Poison Ivy contains an oil called urushiol which causes a nasty rash when it comes into contact with the skin. It is easily absorbed within 3-30 minutes and cannot be removed by any soap. The oil, if left on a dry surface, can be active for over five years, so wash any clothing immediately with a heavy detergent following exposure. Despite what most think, the rash itself is not contagious. You cannot get the rash from someone else who has been exposed. You can only get it if the oil from the plant is still on their clothes or skin, but the rash itself does not contain any of the urushiol oil from Poison Ivy. If you are allergic or even if you aren't sure, I recommend going to a website that will help you identify Poison Ivy when you plan to be outdoors. It is important to be able to identify the varieties of Poison Ivy and what each one looks like in the different seasons. And yes, you can get poison Ivy in the winter when the plant is dead.

Poison Ivy grows on trees like a vine, but it can be in a bush form or even ground cover at the beach. There are several websites that have pictures identifying the different species, but my favorite is poison-ivy.org. This site is full of information, aids in identification, and even has some "Poison Ivy" humor.   

One other important fact about Poison Ivy is that there are several plants related to Poison Ivy that also contain urushiol. If you are known to be sensitive to Poison Ivy, you can also get a bothersome rash from touching the skin of a mango, the shells of cashew nuts, and the sap of the Japanese lacquer tree. It doesn't mean you cannot eat a mango or cashew nuts - it's just the skin or shells that contain the urushiol oil. So basically, you can eat peeled mangos and eat de-shelled cashews.  

Some people are sensitive to plants that have spiny needles and thorns. They can break out in hives when they brush up against the spiny needles. Stinging nettle plants, prickly pear, fig, rose, mulberries, thistles and saw palmetto are all examples of plants that can cause an itchy skin eruption. Most irritations go away on their own, but there is a risk of a staph or fungal infection if there are microbes on the skin when the spiny hair or thorn enters the skin. 

Pretty flowering plants are not always safe from causing a skin irritation either. Orchids, tulip bulbs, chrysanthemums, daffodils, and buttercups are all known to induce allergic reactions in some people.    

By taking the proper precautions when outdoors, you can avoid bothersome skin irritations. Know how to identify poisonous plants and be sure to wear protective clothing when gardening with long sleeves, pants, and boots to prevent exposure to possible irritants. Wash clothing in hot water after being exposed to any possible toxic plants. And if you do get a rash or are suffering from an allergic reaction after being exposed, don't try to do it alone. See a dermatologist who may give you a prescription to ease the discomfort and speed recovery.