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Treating Itchy Skin Rash from Plant Exposure while Camping, Hiking, & Traveling

by | Mar 23, 2023 | Blog, Rash

People find camping, hiking, and traveling as ecstatic activities. A Fact that makes these activities uncomfortable for the traveler is the itchy skin rashes from plant exposure while traveling. This is a common occurrence. These rashes are typically caused by exposure to plants that release irritants such as oils, sap, or thorns which are poisonous. The common plants that cause itchy skin rashes are poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. The appearance of rashes caused by plant exposure can vary depending on the specific plant and the individual’s skin sensitivity. However, some common characteristics of plant rashes include; redness, swelling, itching, blisters, scaly patches, hives, and in severe cases, anaphylaxis.

person trekking in a woody area

Travelers are unaware of the rashes caused by poisonous plants while traveling.  The reason why the issue should be addressed is to make travelers aware of the appearance of the plants, symptoms of the rashes caused by plant exposure, preventive measures that they can take to prevent the exposure to plants, and the treatments that they should undergo to get relief from rashes caused by plant exposure.


What are the causes of the rash?

Plant-induced itchy skin rashes are mainly caused by exposure to oil, sap, hairs, or thorns present in the plants. Some chemical substances found in the oils and saps act as allergens. There are several plants that can cause itchy skin rashes on exposure to them. It is more important to know the external morphology of the plants. So that the people who travel can refrain from coming into contact with them. Some common examples of the plants include,


1. Poison ivy (Rhus Toxicodendron radicans)

Poison ivy is a woody shrub with compound leaves which has multiple leaflets. Each leaf typically has three leaflets, but they can have up to seven. The leaflets are typically oval or shaped and have a pointed tip. The edges of the leaflets may be smooth or toothed. The shrub has aerial roots to climb up trees. This plant produces small greenish-white flowers in summer which are arranged in clusters at the end of the branches. After the flowers are pollinated, poison ivy produces small, white berries that are about the size of a pea. The berries are usually produced in the fall and can persist on the plant throughout the winter. This plant contains a substance called urushiol, an oil that causes a red, itchy rash in people who touch the plant.


2. Poison oak (R. Toxicodendron diversilobum)

Poison oak leaf

This is a vine that can grow up to 6 feet tall. The leaves are arranged in groups of three on the stem and have a characteristic lobed shape, resembling the shape of an oak leaf with a smooth or slightly toothed margin. The leaves are typically green during the growing season, but they can turn red or yellow in the fall. Poison oak also produces small white or yellow flowers in the spring, followed by clusters of green or white berries that ripen to a pale yellow color in the summer. Similar to poison ivy, this plant contains an oil called urushiol in the leaves, stems, and roots and can cause a painful in a human who comes into contact with them.


3. Poison sumac (r. Toxicodendron vernix)

This is a small tree that has compound leaves with 7-13 leaflets that are arranged in pairs. The leaflets are oval-shaped and pointed at the tips, with smooth margins and a glossy, dark green surface. The underside of the leaflets is pale green and may have fine hairs. The stem is smooth and hairless and is often tinged with red or brown. They may have raised dots or small bumps, which are the plant’s sap glands. Poison sumac produces small, greenish-yellow flowers that grow in clusters at the end of the branches. The flowers are not particularly showy and are often inconspicuous. This produces small, whitish berries that grow in loose clusters. The berries are round and have smooth, waxy surfaces. The bark of poison sumac is smooth and grayish-brown, with horizontal lines or ridges. As the tree ages, the bark may become rougher and fissured.

It’s important to note that poison sumac can be easily confused with other harmless plants, such as smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) and staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), which have similar leaves and fruits. However, poison sumac has distinct features such as its smooth stems and highly toxic sap, which can help identify it. This planta contains more urushiol and can cause a more severe rash with skin irritation and blisters.


4. Stinging nettle

This is a perennial plant with an erect unbranched stem and simple heart-shaped leaves with serrated margins. This plant has tiny hairs on its leaves and stems that can cause a stinging sensation and a red itchy rash. Stinging hairs are a unique and distinguishing feature that makes them recognizable.


5. Giant hogweed

This is a plant with large compound leaves which are deeply lobed. The stem is green, stout, and covered in coarse white hairs. Flowers are white and arranged in an umbrella-shaped cluster called an umbel. This is a highly invasive species. This contains a sap that can cause severe skin irritation and blistering if not handled properly.

giant hogweed

This is a plant with large compound leaves which are deeply lobed. The stem is green, stout, and covered in coarse white hairs. Flowers are white and arranged in an umbrella-shaped cluster called an umbel. This is a highly invasive species. This contains a sap that can cause severe skin irritation and blistering if not handled properly.


What are the topical treatments that provide immediate relief for itchy skin rashes

There are several topical treatments that can be used to soothe and alleviate rashes caused by plant exposure. They are,

  • Calamine lotion: This is a popular choice for soothing itchy rashes caused by poison ivy or poison oak. Calamine lotion contains zinc oxide and can provide a cooling sensation and help dry out the rash.
  • Hydrocortisone cream: This over-the-counter cream can be used to reduce inflammation and itchiness caused by rashes from plants such as poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac. It is important to follow the instructions carefully and not use them on broken or infected skin.
  • Oatmeal baths: Adding colloidal oatmeal to a lukewarm bath can provide relief from itching and soothe irritated skin. Colloidal oatmeal can also be found in lotions and creams.
  • Aloe vera gel: Aloe vera is known for its soothing and cooling properties and can be applied topically to calm skin irritation caused by rashes from plants like poison ivy or poison oak.
  • Topical antihistamines: Antihistamines can help relieve itching and inflammation caused by rashes. Topical antihistamines such as diphenhydramine cream can be applied directly to the affected area.


plant induced skin-rash being treated

Some general steps must be followed when using topical treatments for the rashes caused by plant exposure.

  • Clean the affected area: Before applying any topical treatments, clean the affected area with mild soap and warm water. Pat the area dry with a clean towel.
  • Apply the topical treatment: Follow the instructions on the topical treatment carefully. Apply a thin layer of the cream, ointment, or lotion to the affected area and gently rub it in. Be sure to cover the entire rash and the surrounding area.
  • Wash the hands: After applying the topical treatment, wash the hands thoroughly to avoid spreading the rash or the treatment to other parts of the body.
  • Repeat as directed: Follow the directions on the topical treatment for how often to apply it. Some treatments may need to be applied several times a day, while others may only need to be applied once a day.
  • Watch for side effects: Some topical treatments can cause side effects such as burning, stinging, or itching. If you experience any side effects, stop using the treatment and contact the healthcare provider.
  • Follow up with your healthcare provider: If the rash doesn’t improve after a few days of using the topical treatment, or if it gets worse, contact your healthcare provider. They may recommend a different treatment or additional testing to determine the underlying cause of the rash.


Overuse of topical treatments

This can lead to a number of problems, including:

  • Skin irritation: Using too much of a topical treatment can cause irritation, redness, and dryness of the skin.
  • Reduced effectiveness: Overusing topical treatments can cause the skin to become resistant to the treatment, reducing its effectiveness over time.
  • Worsening of the condition: If the topical treatment is not being used correctly or in the right amount, it can actually worsen the condition it was meant to treat.
  • Systemic absorption: Topical treatments can be absorbed into the bloodstream, which can lead to systemic effects, such as nausea, dizziness, and other adverse reactions.
  • Allergic reactions: Overuse of topical treatments can lead to allergic reactions, such as hives or swelling, which can be severe in some cases.


It is important to follow the instructions provided by your healthcare provider or pharmacist when using a topical treatment and to use it only as directed. If you experience any adverse effects or if your condition worsens, you should contact your healthcare provider immediately.


Suffering from an Itchy & Painful Skin Rash?

Seek consultation from an online dermatologist and get the relief you need. Have a peace of mind and enjoy your travels to the fullest! 

How can the itchy rash be stopped from spreading while traveling?

The rash caused by an allergic reaction to the oils or sap in the plants can be spread to other parts of the body if you touch or scratch the affected area. However, the rash can also spread if you come into contact with contaminated objects or surfaces, such as clothing, shoes, gardening tools, or even the fur of a pet that has been in contact with the plant. The oils or sap can remain active on these objects for days or even weeks, and if you touch them and then touch another part of your body, you can transfer the allergen and cause a new rash to develop. If you do develop a rash, it’s best to seek medical attention to help manage the symptoms and prevent the rash from spreading further.

When a person is been exposed to a plant that causes rashes, there are several preventive measures that can be taken to avoid spreading the rash. They are,


  • Wash the affected area: Use cool water and gentle soap to wash the affected area thoroughly. Rinse well and pat dry with a clean towel.
  • Change clothes and wash them: If you suspect that your clothes have come in contact with the plant, change them immediately and wash them in hot water with a strong detergent.
  • Avoid scratching: Scratching can further irritate the skin and spread the rash. Use a cool compress or over-the-counter anti-itch cream to relieve the itch.

How can future rashes be prevented caused by plant exposure while traveling?

Itchy rashes caused by plants can be prevented by taking the following preventive measures:

  1. Learn to identify the plants that cause itchy rashes and avoid them. If you are unsure, use a plant identification app or guidebook.
  2. Wear protective clothing when camping or hiking in areas where these plants may be present. Cover your skin with long sleeves, pants, and gloves.
  3. Apply a barrier cream containing bentoquatam to exposed skin before going into areas with these plants. This can help prevent the plant oil from penetrating your skin.
  4. Wash your skin and clothing thoroughly after being in contact with plants that cause itchy rashes. Use soap and water, and be sure to clean under your fingernails.
  5. Avoid touching your face or other sensitive areas of your body while working in areas with these plants.
  6. Clean any tools or equipment that may have come into contact with these plants.


Remember, prevention is key when it comes to itchy rashes caused by plants. Taking these simple precautions can help you avoid the discomfort and inconvenience of a rash.


Seeking medical attention

If a person develops a rash after coming into contact with plants, as the initial step a topical treatment must be followed.

If the person doesn’t find any relief or if there is a hypersensitivity reaction even after the topical treatment, it’s essential to seek medical attention. Some of such symptoms are,


  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Swelling of the face, lips, tongue, or throat
  • A fever above 100°F
  • A rash that covers a large area of your body or affects sensitive areas, such as your eyes, mouth, or genitals
  • Intense itching or pain that doesn’t improve with over-the-counter remedies
  • Oozing or pus from the rash
  • Signs of infection, such as red streaks, swelling, or tenderness around the rash

If you are unsure whether your rash requires medical attention, it’s always best to get on the side of caution and speak with a healthcare provider. They can evaluate the symptoms and recommend the appropriate treatment.


Consult with a board-certified dermatologist and get back to enjoying your travels!


If a severe rash is developed due to plant exposure while hiking, camping, or traveling and requires medical attention, the following steps must be followed.

  1.  Locate the nearest medical facility: If you are hiking or camping in a remote area, you should research ahead of time to determine the location of the nearest medical facility. You can also ask other hikers for information on where to find medical care.
  2. Contact medical professionals: If you have access to a phone or other communication device, contact a medical professional for guidance on how to treat your rash. Many medical professionals can provide advice over the phone and may be able to recommend medications or other treatments that can help.
  3. Consider using telemedicine: If you have access to the internet or a smartphone, you may be able to use telemedicine to consult with a medical professional. There are many telemedicine providers available that offer remote consultations and can provide advice on how to treat your rash.

If your rash is severe or causing significant discomfort, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible. This may involve leaving the hiking trail to seek care at a nearby medical facility or using emergency services to receive medical attention.



The information provided in this content is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.




  1. Jeffrey G Demain, MD, FAAAAI. Skin rashes while hiking. resources/ask-the-expert/answers/old-ask-the-experts/hiking
  2.  David Amrol MD, Duane Keitel MD, David Hagaman MD, John Murray MD, Ph.D. (2003). Topical pimecrolimus in the treatment of human allergic contact dermatitis. Annuals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology 2003 ( 563-566).

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