Plants & Skin Irritation

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The poison ivy plant contains urushiol, a protein that combines with the proteins on our skin and causes allergic dermatitis and rashes that are red, painful and itchy.
The poison ivy plant contains urushiol, a protein that combines with the proteins on our skin and causes allergic dermatitis and rashes that are red, painful and itchy. (Image: poison ivy, autumn image by Carbonbrain from Fotolia.com)

There are several plants that can cause light to severe inflammation of the human skin, medically known as dermatitis. The magnitude of irritation varies with the tolerance level of each individual. Although most of these skin irritations are temporary and superficial, and do not need medical attention, some can be toxic, persistent and result in serious health aggravations.

Types of Irritants

Plants that cause skin irritations can be divided into five broad categories. The first is poison plants, that carry a toxin known as urishiol in their sap. Coming into contact with these plants causes rashes and blisters on the skin. The most common poison plants are poison ivy, poison oak and the sumac tree. Allergenic plants, on the other hand, do not affect everyone that comes into contact with them. However, they can trigger severe allergic reactions like asthma and hay fever in some people. Examples are orchids, tulip bulbs, chrysanthemums and dahlias. Some common skin irritants are poinsettias, pencil trees, daffodils, hyacinths and buttercups. Less serious are the stinging plants that cause only temporary toxic reactions when their nettles are touched. And lastly, scratches from seemingly innocuous thorn plants like roses, berry bushes, and black and honey locust trees can also inflict a severe infection.

Facts and Myths

People disagree regarding skin irritations from poisonous plants. Despite the popular belief that inflammations from plants like poison ivy are contagious by touch, the only way one can spread such an infection is if he has the chemical urishiol present on his skin or clothing and the recipient comes in direct skin contact with it. The inflammation itself is not communicable. Also, it is a misconception that scratching the inflamed area spreads the irritation to other parts of the body. Additionally, rashes and blisters can occur more than a week after the exposure to urishiol.

Symptoms

Toxic reactions from plants like poison ivy generally surface after a gap of a few days from the time of contact. Most of these blisters or skin irritations heal on their own over a period of one to three weeks, while others can be serious and might need comprehensive medical treatment including hospitalization. Common symptoms of toxic plant reactions are red rashes with severe itching, rashes in patches or uneven streaks, red bumps or unusually large blisters. The effects of urishiol can become serious if it reaches the mucous membranes in the eyes, nostrils, mouth or the genitalia. In such cases, the affected individual should get in touch with a physician right away.

Precautions

The most important measure in avoiding skin irritations from poisonous plants is to know the toxic plants found in the local area. Stay away from plants with sets of three large leaves along with three smaller ones as a way to avoid poison ivy irritation. Wear long pants and sleeves, boots and gloves while doing activities that may bring you into contact with toxic plants. Wash them separately in hot water after use. Remember that toxins can be present in smoke if poisonous plants are burned. Avoid eating berries and leaves unless you are certain that they are not poisonous.

Treatment

Apart from prescription medication, a number of non-prescription and herbal remedies are available to treat or prevent skin lesions from plants. A good anti-itch cream is helpful in treating mild rashes such as those caused by poison ivy. However, you may require prescription drugs, topical steroid creams or steroid medication to treat severe skin irritations and rashes.

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