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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Monday - September 23, 2013

From: Round Rock, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: General Botany, Poisonous Plants, Problem Plants
Title: Plant-related skin rashes from Round Rock TX
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

I have been plagued with persistent skin rashes this summer, and it is happening with plants that have never bothered me before, for example, red yucca. The dermatologist says it is a plant reaction, although 4 different doctors did tests to rule out scary systemic issues. My question is this: Is it possible that the drought has caused the essential oils in plants to be more concentrated, and hence more likely to cause a skin reaction? (Just trying to figure out why my garden suddenly hates me).

ANSWER:

We think your theory is as good as anyone else's on that subject. We did some searching on the Internet and found this article from Science Day on Drought Increasing Challenge to Hydraulic Systems of Plants. Another article, this one from the Texas A&M Forest Service, discusses The Effect of Drought Stress on Trees and Landscape Plants. While these articles both cite the problems plants have with reduced moisture in their branches, the point was also made that the stomata of the plants would close to preserve moisture, therefore reducing the chance of your coming into contact with that moisture.

So, we went on to look at the possibilities of sensitivities to allergens. Someone who has never been allergic to poison ivy or insect stings can have a reaction to one of those, and from then on become sensitized to those allergens. From the National Institute of Health, we found an article on The Sensitization Capacity of Plants on this subject, which included this line: "As a practical consequence, patients suffering from allergic contact dermatitis due to Compositae species are strictly requested to avoid contact with the offending species and all related species to prevent recurrences of their skin lesions."

Since you did not say which plants you suspected, and probably neither you nor your doctor can identify the precise culprit, we are going to call on our alter ego, Mr. Common Sense, for some advice. If you suspect something you are coming in contact with, and you don't know what it is or how to stop it, the best advice is to protect yourself. Long sleeves and pants, leather gloves or even heavy-duty rubber gloves, all of which should be carefully cleaned after a single wearing. We fully realize how hot and inconvenient that will be, but consider, would you rather sweat or itch?

 

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