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FAQ: Pesky Rashes From Plants

An Expert Answers Questions About Preventing and Treating Rashes You Can Get in Your Backyard

How should you treat plant allergies?

That depends on the plant and the reaction.

In the case of cacti or other spiny plants, the spine should be carefully removed from the skin, usually with tweezers. If it's a really small spine or glochid, apply glue and gauze to the site, allow it to dry, and peel it off.

Minor itching, irritation, or rash can be typically treated with an oral antihistamine or over-the-counter topical steroid. But if a rash doesn’t respond to over-the-counter treatments, you should see a dermatologist. In cases where a rash is accompanied by more severe reactions such as difficulty in breathing or swallowing, go to the emergency room immediately.

If you come in contact with poison ivy, rinse the skin with water immediately. About 50% of the urushiol will come off if you rinse within 10 minutes. But avoid soap; it can spread the resin.

Lukewarm baths and soaks with products containing aluminum acetate (a type of salt that dries up the blisters and any weeping) and topical preparations such as calamine or topical steroids are helpful in treating a poison ivy rash.

While oral antihistamines will help alleviate itching and skin irritation, topical antihistamines should be avoided as some people are allergic to them and the rash could get worse.

In cases in which a rash is severe or covers a large area of the body, a dermatologist may prescribe strong topical steroids or a two- to three-week course of oral steroids.

How can I prevent skin reactions?

You may not always be able to prevent them, but you can minimize the risk. I give my patients these tips: 

  • Wear protective clothing whenever possible, including gloves (preferably vinyl gloves), long sleeves, and long pants tucked into socks. 
  • Apply an over-the-counter barrier cream or lotion containing quaternium-18 bentonite to exposed skin before going outdoors. This helps prevent urushiol from poisonous plants from contacting the skin. 
  • Avoid poisonous plants. Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are recognizable due to their three-leave groups. Remember this phrase: "Leaves of three, let it be."
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