Remedying Rashes and the Poisonous Plants that Cause Them

As I was bushwacking and scrambling down to get to the Yuba River, I was careful of my handholds to avoid touching any of the poison oak that I knew was abundant in this part of California. (I had also spotted plenty along the trail.)

A family was following closely behind us and I mentioned to them as I led the way, “Be careful of the poison oak,” to which they responded, “Oh, we didn’t even realize there was poison oak here. I’m not even sure what it looks like.” 

I can only imagine how their trip might have left them with an unwanted souvenir (in the form of a nasty 2-week rash) without the heads up.

The itch sitch

Rashes are no fun. They’re the intensely itchy, sometimes painful reaction we have to an irritant. Rashes could arise from a variety of sources:

     🐛 a bug bite or sting 
     🦠 from a virus or bacterial infection
     🌿 exposure to a plant 

Specifically, plants that contain toxic oils (called urushiol) can bind with the skin within 30-60 minutes and cause extreme itchiness and even blistering. It can take hours to days for a rash to appear after initial contact.

But, if properly prepared, you can avoid ever experiencing a plant-based rash with some of these tips from our GOES doctors:

   💡Stay on the trail and try not to brush up against anything. (Or if you have to do a little bushwacking, take your time and look before you touch or proceed.)
   💡Wear long sleeves and pants to keep your skin protected in case you accidentally brush up against any plants. (And if you do come in contact, remove the contaminated clothes and wash them as soon as you can. Residual oil can stay on surfaces for as long as a year!)
   💡Get to know what plants are growing in an area. (Like the family at the river, they didn’t know that there was anything to even look out for!)
   💡Get familiar with the poisonous plants and learn how to identify them ⤵

Know your plants

These are the three most common species of poisonous plants in the US, and some key characteristics to help you distinguish them in the wild.

Rash remedies

Let’s say you were careful and took all the precautions to avoid these plants, but your dog still darted off into a bush of poison oak that you didn’t know about and some of that urushiol got onto your skin, unbeknownst to you. A couple days later, you break out into a miserable rash. (True story.) What do you do then? 

Dr. Annaleigh Boggess recommends these basic steps of care:

  • Wash the skin with soap and water after your hike to wash away any oils that are present and to keep oils from spreading.
  • Don’t scratch! It’s going to be difficult, but try your best. Scratching can increase your risk of a bacterial infection.
  • Over-the-counter antihistamines such as 25mg benadryl (taken 2-4 times daily) can help with the itching. It will make you feel sleepy, so it’s best to take at night before bed!
  • Topical corticosteroids can help with itching as well, such as over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream or prescription 0.1% triamcinolone cream. Do not use these creams to the face, armpits, or genitals. 
  • Oatmeal baths can help soothe sore skin. I recommend following this up with calamine lotion as well.
  • Aluminum acetate cold compresses can be helpful. Dissolve the product (like Domeboro or Burow’s solution) in cold water to create a 1:40 dilution of solution. Then use it as a soak, compress, or wet dressing. 
  • Symptoms resolve after 10-14 days, so a tincture of time is the most helpful. 
  • Systemic steroids may be needed if you have extensive symptoms to most of the body including the face and genitals. Look for developing signs of infection (such as spreading redness, purulent drainage, or fever), which will need further medical evaluation.

Off you GO(ES)

Whether you’ve got an itch for adventure, or an itch from a bug bite or plant, take GOES with you as your outdoor safety companion.

Rashes are no fun. Learn how to distinguish poisonous plants and get rash care tips from Dr. Annaleigh Boggess.
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