Caring for Summer Skin Allergies: Bites, Stings and Rashes

Nights at the fire pit fending off pesky mosquitos. Long days of yard work that end in a bad case of poison ivy. Family play time that results in a dreaded sting. With summer comes many things that can cause allergic skin reactions, like bugs, plants and the sun. From bites and rashes to serious bee, wasp and hornet stings, knowing how to treat these common summer skin reactions will go a long way in helping you stay comfortable and safe all season long.

Bee, Wasp and Hornet Stings

Stings are uncomfortable for everyone. Whether you experience minor symptoms, such as a burning sensation, itching or swelling, or more serious ones like the swelling of your throat and tongue, we’re all on high alert when we see a bee, wasp or hornet.

“When most people get stung, they may experience pain at the sting site, redness and swelling. These reactions are generally what we call local reactions,” explains Marwa El Bohy, MD, an allergy and immunology specialist with ProMedica Physicians. “For example, if you’re stung on the finger and your hand swells up, that’s still considered a local reaction because it is contiguous with the site of the sting.”

However, when your body’s response to a sting creates more than a local reaction, and affects your ability to breathe and function, you need emergency treatment. ER doctors are specially trained to recognize the signs of anaphylaxis (a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction), including:

  • Chest tightening.
  • Confusion.
  • Coughing.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • Dizziness.
  • Lightheadedness.
  • Lip swelling.
  • Nausea.
  • Passing out.
  • Tongue swelling.
  • Hives.
  • Flushing.
  • Itching.

“There are several types of allergic reactions that may occur upon exposure to a known allergen or trigger. Anaphylaxis represents the most severe type of reaction and usually involves at least two organ systems or isolated involvement of the respiratory or cardiovascular systems,” Dr. El Bohy notes. “So, hives and vomiting or lip swelling and difficulty breathing, for example, would be diagnosed as anaphylaxis since two organ systems are involved. Anytime you experience respiratory or cardiovascular distress, you should go to the ER.”

For those who experience systemic reactions to a sting or severe swelling, referral to an allergist for venom testing and possibly immunotherapy is important. Venom immunotherapy can be a life-saving treatment to prevent or mitigate risk of future reactions.

Those who’ve been stung many times with progressively larger local reactions should see an allergist to discuss venom therapy, as well, especially if they have a high risk of exposure, such as landscapers, gardeners or beekeepers.

Another important tip from Dr. El Bohy: “If a stinger is left in your skin, remove it by scraping it with a fingernail or credit card. But do not use tweezers to pull it out. Venom can be left in the stinger and if you squeeze it, you can release more venom and worsen the reaction.”

Mosquito Bites

While mosquito bites can be annoying, very rarely do they cause severe allergic reactions like bee stings. Mosquito saliva, which is made of as many as 30 different proteins, is what makes us allergic to mosquito bites — and reactions vary widely from person to person.

Fortunately, you can use over-the-counter remedies to treat mosquito bites. And these same remedies can be used for mild bee stings:

  • Acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  • Antihistamine.
  • Anti-itch and cortisone cream (1% to 2% is sold over the counter).
  • Calamine lotion.
  • Ice for swelling.

Spraying your body and clothes with insect repellant containing 20% to 30% DEET is the most effective way to keep mosquitoes away. Parents can use the spray on kids as long as they’re older than two months.

After that, avoid mosquito bites by:

  • Wearing long sleeves, pants and closed-toe shoes whenever possible.
  • Emptying standing water.
  • Trying bug-repellant wrist bands, citronella candles and mosquito-repellant plants.

Plants and Rashes

Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac can cause itchy rashes because of an oil they contain called urushiol. Properly identifying these plants and avoidance is one of the best ways to avoid a potential reaction. Poison ivy or poison oak have red stems and leaves in groups of three arising from a single stem. Poison sumac may have five to seven or more leaves.  All species may have black dots on it from the urushiol oil that has been oxidized after exposure to oxygen.

If you come in contact with any of these plants, be sure to wash yourself and your clothes right away. Getting the urushiol off your skin is key to stopping the spread and calming the rash. You can also try:

  • Applying anti-itch or hydrocortisone cream.
  • Soaking in an oatmeal bath.
  • Taking an antihistamine.
  • Using calamine lotion.

You may need to see a healthcare provider to get a more potent topical steroid or an oral steroid if the rash persists.

One last note: It’s a common misconception that scratching the rash and then touching another part of your body can spread it. But that’s not the case. Only the oil itself, not your blister fluid, can spread the rash. Touching your face, arms, legs or feet, however, before you realize the oil is on you, is the problem.

Rashes and the Sun

Separate from an actual sunburn, there are several types of rashes that may occur with sun exposure, often described as a “sun allergy”.  This may occur even if you’re only in the sun for a short period of time (30 minutes to a few hours). You may have an increased risk of developing this type of a reaction if you are taking certain medications, such as antibiotics, which make you photosensitive.

These rashes, which are red and very itchy, typically occur on any sun-exposed areas of your body. The good news is that these rashes typically resolve with just supportive care at home. “The key is avoidance and appropriate use of sun protection as primary means of prevention and ultimately staying out of the sun so your skin can heal,” says Dr. El Bohy.

To learn more about allergies and allergy care at ProMedica, visit ProMedica.org.

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