While wandering around in the woods can be beneficial for your mind, body and soul, us adventurers need to keep in mind that nature’s bounty has a way of protecting itself from predators, parasites and plucking hands alike.
Many of the beautiful foliage that decorates our landscape also carries with it potent oils, saps, nectars, pollens and other protective mechanisms that can cause an array of not-so-great skin reactions and irritations to human beings.
Breaking out in blisters or rashes, experiencing stinging or burning sensations, suffering from persistent itching, or reacting to sudden ultraviolet sensitivities will no doubt throw a wrench in your adventure plans.
Learning how to prevent, identify and deal with potential outbreaks is powerful wisdom to add to your backcountry adventure know-how (with a few items to add to your first aid kit, too!)
If you’re going to be wandering around in thick brush, marshy areas or places where you don’t know the story of the understory, you can stay outbreak free by following some simple protocols.
First off, getting acquainted with the poisonous plants that exist in the area can be very helpful. It’s challenging to remember all the specifics when it comes to plant identification, so making a folder of ‘rash plant’ photos on your phone or carrying a list with images and obvious ID markers can boost your confidence.
If you’re in the vicinity of smartphone signals, you can download apps like iNaturalist or PlantSnap to help you identify what you’re looking at. Make a game out of getting to know your greenery! It’s a great way to connect further with your good friend Mother Nature.
Many irritating plants spread their toxicity through skin contact. Whether you’re dealing with saps, oils, hairs or pollens, reducing the possibility of direct skin exposure is the name of the game.
Wearing long sleeves, long pants, a hat, socks and closed toe shoes is a good place to start. In extra thick brush it can be a good idea to sport that oh-so-trendy look of tucking your pants into your socks.
In the heat of summer, when it can be hard to cover yourself up tip to tail, be extra careful when you’re near plants that you have identified as potential irritants, or are uncertain about.
Since toxins can cling to your shoes, clothes, equipment and pets, and then spread from there, it’s also good practice to be mindful of where you are setting your gear down and your tent up. Imagine laying your backpacking towel down on a pile of poison oak only to find out the hard way it wasn’t just a benign bush.
Another way that plant toxins enter your body and can potentially even be fatal is through inhalation, so avoid burning any noxious weeds or unknown plant matter in your backcountry campfire.
Potions & Lotions
If you must go into a particularly dense area where poison ivy, oak or sumac exists, you can apply a preventative lotion to your skin containing the ingredient bentoquatam. This will help create a barrier between you and the urushiol oil — the cause of those nasty rashes, blisters and breakouts!
HOW TO HANDLE EXPOSURE
We are all unique in our levels of sensitivity to a plant's toxicity, and the severity of reactions vary widely. For example, while 85% of people are allergic to urushiol oil (from the poison ivy, oak and sumac family), 15% of people aren’t allergic to it at all; while 25% of people will have a severe reaction to it.
Rashes, blisters, sun sensitivity, itching, burning and other irritations can take anywhere from 10 minutes to 72 hours to show up on your skin, and for some people it may not show up at all. It’s not uncommon to forget what plant matter you were exposed to by the time the outbreak occurs.
Methods of Treatment
Most mild reactions from rash-inducing plants can be treated by washing the infected area with lukewarm water and mild soap. This will help to remove the sticky oils, saps and resins; and clear away any clinging pollen.
If you’ve come in contact with wood or stinging nettle, and they have left their tiny hairs embedded in your skin, try using tweezers or medical tape (from your first aid kit) to remove them.
If you’re in the backcountry without access to water, you can use an antiseptic wipe (also in your first aid kit) to clean the irritated area. There are also topical products like Tecnu Skin Cleanser that you can use to wash your skin after contact with certain irritants.
As for alleviating that nagging itch, apply a calamine or hydrocortisone lotion (travel-sized bottles exist); make a backcountry cold compress using a piece of fabric dipped in cold water; or use an over-the-counter antihistamine like Benadryl. (Benadryl will cause drowsiness, so best to save it for the end of your hiking day.)
If you’re one of the sensitive ones that happens to have a severe reaction, such as nausea, fever, shortness of breath, intense swelling or difficulty swallowing, or if you develop a full body rash, call the adventure quits and seek medical attention ASAP.
Keep the infected area cool, dry and clean. Some plant resins, like the sap from giant hogweed or wild parsnip, can cause your skin to become hypersensitive to ultraviolet light, so it’s best to keep any skin that came in contact with those plants covered.
Do your best not to scratch, rub or pick at the irritated area, as doing so can lead to spreading the oils, breaking the skin, scarring and other issues.
Rashes, blisters and the like will often clear up after 7 to 10 days, especially if you properly care for them. If your rash hasn’t healed after two weeks, and doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of getting better, you might want to consider seeking medical help.
Remember that oils, saps, pollens and resins can cling to clothing, gear and pets, so it’s best to wash all of the above after any irritant exposure.
COMMON IRRITATING PLANTS
POISON IVY, POISON OAK & POISON SUMAC
Despite their namesake, none of these plants are actually poisonous per se, but they can be extremely irritating if you brush up against them. Their sap contains urushiol oil, which irritates the skin, causing red rashes and itchy blisters that can form days or even weeks after exposure.
All three iterations of the ‘poison plants’ grow across North America, with Sumac being the least common but also the most potent. Inhalation of any smoke from these plants is unhealthy, but sumac smoke specifically can cause pulmonary edema and therefore be life threatening.
Rashes from these plants are non-contagious but can be spread by continued contact with the skin, animal or apparel that was infected. Be sure to wash the infected area thoroughly and clean everything that was along for the adventure.
WOOD NETTLE & STINGING NETTLE
Found growing all across North America, both Stinging Nettle and Wood Nettle are host to tiny little hairs along the stems of their plants. If you rub against the hairs (also known as trichomes) you break the end off of them and they release a cocktail of chemicals onto your skin.
The result of this rub is a sharp, painful ‘sting’ followed by a burning, itching sensation. Depending on the level of contact, this irritation can stick around for several hours and in some cases, it can cause the site of contact to break out into hives that last for up to a day.
As mentioned above, you’ll be able to mitigate symptoms by washing with mild soap and water, cleaning with an alcohol wipe, or removing hairs with a tweezer or medical tape.
Interestingly, drying or cooking these plants deactivates the stinging properties of the nettles, which have long been used as a medicine to treat joint pain, eczema, arthritis, gout and anemia; as well as gathered for food and sautéed or steamed like any other delicious, nutritious vegetable. Be sure to wear gloves, use scissors and dress appropriately.
GIANT HOGWEED & WILD PARSNIP
Giant Hogweed and Wild Parsnip grow all over North America and are highly invasive. These plants’ entire surfaces contain a sap that is phototoxic, meaning it makes your skin extremely sensitive to ultraviolet (UV) light. UV light includes the entire spectrum from visible light to x-rays.
If your skin comes in contact with UV light after exposure to the sap, the site will often turn red with a rash, blister or burn; but it can take up to 24 hours for the reaction to occur. The resulting rash may look similar to that of a second-degree burn and, in some cases, can be permanent.
If contact with Giant Hogweed or Wild Parsnip occurs, be sure to wash the infected areas with soap and water, and shield it from further light exposure. If contact with the eyes occurs, the phototoxic sap can not only damage your vision, it can lead to blindness as well. If you get sap in your eyes, rinse well with water and wear sunglasses for at least 48 hours.
Unlike the saps and oils of other irritating plants, it’s the pollen from Ragweed that causes those of us who are allergic to break out in itchy red streaks or swollen eyelids. A ragweed rash often develops immediately after skin exposure, but can take up to two days to occur. Most Ragweed rashes will become itchy, which can be mitigated with the same over-the-counter solutions mentioned above.
Since the bright yellow pollen from Ragweed can be airborne, breathing it in can also cause issues. Ragweed is responsible for causing hay fever and seasonal allergic rhinitis in the fall.
PARTING PLANT WORDS
Plants that cause troublesome reactions are simply part of the diverse fabric of our interesting existence and are by no means a reason to avoid frocliking in the backcountry bush. Being aware of their presence, having knowledge of their potent potentials, and understanding how to mitigate our reactions to them can make all the difference!
Ali Becker is a freelance adventure writer and narrative storyteller who shares compelling conversations about personal transformations, overcoming limitations, wellness education and adventurous situations. You can follow her rambling adventures on social at @thisisalibecker or at her blog thisisalibecker.com.