How to Identify a Stinging Nettle Rash—And What to Do if You Have One
If you feel like you've gotten stung by a bee on a hike, it could actually be this plant.
Exploring the great outdoors means getting up close and personal with nature—and while most of the time that means taking in beautiful scenic views and rare wildlife, it can also lead to some less-than-pleasant skin irritations.
One of those irritations is a stinging nettle rash—which, you guessed it, is a rash that comes from contact with a stinging nettle plant. And it can put a serious damper on any outdoor excursion.
If you're an outdoorsy person who takes the occasional hike or camping trip in the summertime, here's what experts want you to know about stinging nettle rashes—including the most common symptoms and how best to treat the itch and irritation.
What is a stinging nettle rash?
So, stinging nettle rashes happen when a person comes into contact with a stinging nettle plant, technically known as Urtica dioica. These plants can be found all over the world, including in North America, Purvi Parikh, MD, a New York City-based allergist and immunologist and spokesperson for the Allergy & Asthma Network, tells Health.
Stinging nettle plants (sometimes just called stinging nettles) are normally found near riverbanks and in areas of farmland, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The plants can grow up to 8 feet tall and have thin, dark green leaves with a tapered tip.
The plants actually have two types of hairs on them—both ordinary and those that sting, the DEC says. The stinging hairs are longer, about 1 millimeter in length, and stick out aggressively on the stems and leaves.
It's those hairs that cause a stinging nettle rash. Per the DEC, when you come into contact with one of the stinging hairs, a piece breaks off and subjects your skin to "dose of histamine, acetylcholine, serotonin and formic acid." This leads to a painful skin reaction—but note that it's only an irritation, not an allergic reaction.
What are the symptoms of a stinging nettle rash?
A stinging nettle rash closely resembles that of hives, or urticaria, says Dr. Parikh. The rash is typically a red, raised welt (or smaller bumps) that comes with a burning, itching, or tingling sensation. (Per the DEC, coming into contact with a stinging hair of the plant can feel like a "bee sting.") Luckily, the rash should only last up to 24 hours before subsiding.
While a short-lived stinging nettle rash is more of an irritation than an allergy, there are rare situations in which someone may be allergic to stinging nettles. In that case, they can experience a severe and life-threatening allergic reaction with symptoms like difficulty breathing, tightness in the chest or throat, wheezing, swelling in the mouth, tongue and lips, full-body rash (even in areas that didn't come into contact with the plant), stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting.
According to Dr. Parikh, any of those symptoms are a medical emergency and should be checked out by a doctor immediately. Even if you have a rash from stinging nettle that lasts longer than 24 hours, you should still get a professional's opinion ASAP.
How can you treat—and prevent—a stinging nettle rash?
If you do come across a stinging nettle plant and develop a rash, you'll want to avoid scratching, touching, or rubbing your skin to prevent the rash from penetrating deeper, which can make the reaction more severe. Dr. Parikh advises waiting 10 minutes before washing your skin where the plant touched it with soap and water to wash off the chemicals released by the stinging nettles.
Additionally, if you have tape or a hair wax strip, it can be helpful to use to remove any remaining excess nettles on your skin. Other home remedies include applying dock leaves to the affected area, which you may be able to find if you're still out in the wilderness, or applying a paste of baking soda and cold water if you're back at home. "A cool compress, ice and antihistamines, as well as topical hydrocortisone creams can also help [to bring relief]," says Dr. Parikh.
While you wait for the rash to heal, you'll want to avoid exposing the area to sunlight and also avoid wearing tight or restrictive clothing, which may further irritate the area.
Fortunately, experiencing painful skin irritations and reactions to plants like stinging nettles isn't inevitable with every outdoor adventure, says Dr. Parikh. You can reduce your risk by avoiding leaving areas of your skin exposed when hiking in wooded areas or around foliage and shrubbery.
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