Hiking, swimming, and soaking in the great outdoors can be exhilarating. But you also encounter dangerous plants, bugs, and other irritants that can leave you with a nasty rash. If you wake up one morning all red and splotchy, here’s a guide that will help you identify the source.
Rashes from poison ivy, oak, and sumac
All three of these poisonous plants contain a liquid allergen called urushiol. Their appearances vary, and they’re found in different areas across Canada, but they cause virtually identical skin reactions. A few days after exposure, the affected skin will become red and itchy and bumps and blisters will develop. With direct contact, the rash may resemble a straight line because of the way the plant brushes against the skin. But if it’s transferred from clothing or pet fur it will be more spread out. The symptoms generally last two to three weeks. Some reactions are more severe than others, and you should definitely see your doctor if you develop a fever over 100°F, your blisters are oozing pus, or you’ve got an outbreak on your face or genitals.
Rashes from nettles
Wood nettles and stinging nettles are two variations on a plant species that are found throughout Canada, mostly in orchards, farmyards, and pastures. The plants have stinging hairs that break off on contact and secrete toxic chemicals. Affected skin areas will turn red, swell up, and start to itch and burn. The effects are immediate, but they only last a few days at most. For some sufferers the burning is quite severe, and they may even experience temporary numbness. If any of the stingers actually get stuck in your skin, you can pull them out using duct tape or masking tape.
Rashes from ragweed
This flowering plant is already a source of torture for people who suffer from pollen allergies, but direct contact can also cause an uncomfortable rash. 48 hours after initial exposure, small bumps and blisters will pop up all over your skin. It may take two or three weeks for the symptoms to entirely subside.
Rashes from wild parsnips
These rogue vegetables, which grow on roadsides, pastures and along fences, may seem like a tasty wild treat, but if you ever encounter any, don’t pick them up! Sap from the plant contains a chemical called furocoumarins, which absorbs into the skin and reacts very badly to sunlight. A day after contact, your skin will turn red and start to blister as if you’re suffering from sunburn. Unlike poison Ivy, which causes an allergic skin reaction, wild parsnip sap actually destroys skin cells. Some areas of your skin may discolour and turn brown, which can last for months.
Not all rashes are plant related. Swimmer’s itch is caused by freshwater parasites that normally pray on birds and snails. On hot days, particularly when the water is nice and calm, the parasites are released into lakes and ponds, and they may accidentally come into contact with human swimmers while searching for a bird to latch on to. The parasites penetrate the skin and die immediately. They’re not capable of infecting humans, but they will cause an inflammatory reaction. The rash will first present itself as mild red spots and progress to larger blisters, which itch powerfully. Every individual blister is the result of a single parasite penetrating the skin. The irritation should clear up within a few days.
If your skin is irritated and you have no recollection of any sketchy contact with nature, you may simply be suffering from a heat rash. They flare up when temperatures are high and you’re sweating excessively. If your pores become blocked and can’t release perspiration, you may break out in tiny red dots that look like pimples. Some people will also develop more severe blisters and deep red lumps. It occurs most often in the folds of clothing (especially tight fitting outfits) where sweat is unable to escape. Heat rash can be very uncomfortable, and you may feel extremely itchy or even prickly all over. It will clear up on its own, but you need to keep your skin cool and try to reduce sweating.