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10 Common Skin Irritants

Poison oak leaves can prompt an allergic reaction similar to the rash shown here.
Poison oak leaves can prompt an allergic reaction similar to the rash shown here.

Campers, hikers, and gardeners may encounter some of nature's most common skin irritants: poison ivy, oak and sumac. Despite their ominous moniker, these plants create different reactions in people, none of which pose serious health risks.

If you encounter poison ivy, you might have red, itchy bumps or blisters that appear in the days following your encounter, and lasting about 2-3 weeks. This reaction is caused by an allergic reaction to a resin found in the plant called urushiol. If the rash is severe or in a particularly frustrating area, such as the face, a medical professional may prescribe a treatment of oral steroids to reduce the inflammation. Another treatment is the drug Bentoquatam, sold under the trade name IvyBlock, which has been shown to absorb urushiol, and to help prevent and relieve rashes from poison ivy, oak and sumac.

While you're avoiding urushiol, you may be voluntarily subjecting yourself to another irritating plant chemical: capsaicin. Capsaicin is the chemical that makes hot peppers "hot." Besides burning your tongue when you eat it, capsaicin can also create an intense burning sensation in your skin and eyes. Unless you have an allergic reaction to capsaicin, though, just washing thoroughly with soap and water should be sufficient treatment for your skin.

Your best prevention against skin irritation from plant contact is keeping your skin covered. Wear sufficient clothing to come between you and the plants when you're walking among natural brush. Also, wear protective gloves and use caution when handling the leaves of poison ivy or the pods of hot peppers.