What Is Stinging Nettle Rash?

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 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, 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.

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Causes

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, said Purvi Parikh, MD, a New York City-based allergist and immunologist at Rochester Regional 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, according to the DEC. The stinging hairs are longer, about 1 millimeter in length, and stick out aggressively on the stems and leaves.

The hairs on the plant can cause a reaction. Per the DEC, when you come into contact with one of the stinging hairs, a piece breaks off and subjects your skin to a "dose of histamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, and formic acid." This leads to a painful skin reaction that feels similar to a bee sting.

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Symptoms

Stinging nettle rash closely resembles that of hives, or urticaria, said Dr. Parikh. It can also burn, itch, or tingle for several hours after coming into contact with the plant, according to the DEC.

If you were exposed to a nettle plant for a long period of time, you could develop other symptoms as well, according to the New Zealand Ministry of Health. This can include:

  • Tremor
  • Lack of coordination
  • Muscle weakness
  • Fainting

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. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, symptoms of a severe allergic reaction can include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Tightness in the chest or throat
  • Wheezing
  • Swelling in lips, tongue, throat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Stomach pain
  • Bloating
  • Vomiting or diarrhea

According to Dr. Parikh, any of those symptoms are a medical emergency and should be checked out by a healthcare provider immediately.

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Courtesy of APHC / Kevin Harkins

Treatment and Prevention

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, according to the New Zealand Ministry of Health. You should also wear light clothing to prevent further itching.

Dr. Parikh advised 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. "A cool compress, ice, and antihistamines, as well as topical hydrocortisone creams, can also help [to bring relief]," said Dr. Parikh.

Fortunately, experiencing painful skin irritations and reactions to plants like stinging nettles isn't inevitable with every outdoor adventure, said 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.

Summary

Stinging nettle rashes can occur if you come into contact with a stinging nettle plant. You may experience a painful, burning, or itching sensation where your body made contact with the plant, according to the New Zealand Ministry of Health. The symptoms should resolve in a few days but be aware of any signs of an allergic reaction.

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