Headed Outdoors? Look Out for These 4 Common Skin Problems

Heading outside to cure your cabin fever? Right now especially, many are constantly on a quest to find fun experiences and great adventures that involve being outdoors. Whether you are planning to take a fun hike, pack for a camping trip, head out back to garden, or go for a swim, outdoor activities can sometimes leave us with itchy rashes and other skin problems.

I see a surge of parents bringing in their children concerned about bumps, redness, and itchy skin irritations from being outside. But these skin problems don’t just impact kids – they impact adults, too. Knowing how to avoid these skin problems and ways to safely treat them at home can save you a trip to the doctor.

While the information below can help you treat mild skin problems at home, if you are experiencing more severe symptoms such as difficulty breathing or facial swelling, it is important to have them evaluated immediately. Also, if you or a family member has a known allergy, it is imperative that you travel with an epinephrine auto-injector.

Here are some of the most common skin problems that can appear from spending time outdoors, and what you need to know to safely prevent and treat them.

#1: Bug Bite and Stings

Although most insect bites and stings are harmless and do not cause significant illness, they can lead to discomfort and local irritation. In rare instances, bites and stings can also cause an allergic reaction or skin infection. Some bugs, such as ticks and mosquitoes, can even transmit certain illnesses.

How to Avoid Bug Bites and Stings

While bugs are difficult to avoid altogether, there are some simple steps you can take to protect yourself from bites and stings:

  • Use insect repellent
    • Do not use on babies under 2 months of age.
    • Only apply to healthy skin and outside of clothes. Do NOT use it on scratches or wounds.
    • Use Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents
    • Apply 15-20 minutes before going outdoors and reapply every few hours as directed on the Drug Facts label.
    • Use a repellent that contains DEET, which is safe to use as directed and effective at keeping insects away. The best protection comes from a repellent that contains 30% DEET.
    • If you are using sunscreen, apply sunscreen first, and insect repellent second.
  • Avoid using fragrant sprays and shampoos, as they can attract bugs
  • Cover your skin by wearing long sleeves, pants, socks, and shoes

How to Treat Bug Bites and Stings

Most of the time, bug bites and stings cause mild skin reactions, such as redness, itching, stinging, or minor swelling. For treating mild reactions, follow these steps:

  • If needed, remove the stinger. Wash the area with soap and water.
  • Apply a cool compress, such as a cloth damp with cold water or filled with ice.
  • Apply an over-the-counter (OTC) hydrocortisone cream or ointment on bites that aren’t scratched open or raw.
  • Take an over-the-counter (OTC) anti-allergy medicine, such as one that contains diphenhydramine, to reduce itching.

Usually the signs and symptoms of a bite or sting start to disappear in a day or two. If you have concerns – even if your reaction is minor – call your doctor or other healthcare professional.

#2: Poison Plant Reactions

Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are all plants that contain an irritating, oily sap called urushiol – which can trigger an allergic reaction when it comes into direct contact with skin. You can also be exposed to urushiol by touching objects, like gardening tools and camping equipment, that have come into contact with one of the poison plants. Common signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction include:

  • Swelling
  • Itching
  • Redness
  • Blisters

A rash from contact with a poison plant’s urushiol often appears in a line across the skin but can spread anywhere on the body via clothing and scratching if the urushiol is not removed. Reactions usually develop within a couple days of exposure and may last up to three weeks.

How to Avoid Poison Plant Reactions

Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are three of the most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis in North America. But there are steps you can take to prevent reactions:

  • Learn to identify poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac, and avoid contact with them. The saying, “Leaves of three, let them be!” is helpful for identifying poison ivy and oak. Poison sumac usually has 7-13 leaves arranged in clusters.
  • When walking in the woods or working in places where these plants may grow, cover your skin as much as possible by wearing long-sleeves, pants, socks, and shoes.
  • Wear heavy-duty vinyl gloves when doing yard work or gardening as urushiol can seep through latex or rubber gloves.
  • If you come into contact with a poison plant, wash all clothes and shoes in soap and water. Also, wash the exposed area of the skin with soap and water for at least 10 minutes after the plant or the oil is touched.
  • Apply over-the-counter (OTC) skin products that are intended to act as a barrier between your skin and urushiol.

How to Treat Poison Plant Reactions

Symptoms such as rashes, blisters, and itching normally disappear in several weeks without any treatment. You can find some relief by:

  • Soak the rash in cool water or apply a cold compress.
  • If the rash is mild, apply calamine lotion to dry the oozing – avoid ointments that contain anesthetics or antihistamines as they can cause allergic reactions themselves.
  • Apply an over-the-counter (OTC) hydrocortisone cream or ointment on rashes that aren’t scratched open or raw.
  • Trim your fingernails to prevent the rash from spreading, in case there is any trace urushiol left under your nails.

While mild cases can be treated at home, talk with your doctor or other healthcare professional if you are especially uncomfortable, if the rash is severe and/or isn’t going away, if the rash is on your face or groin area, or if you notice signs of infection such as fever, redness, and/or swelling beyond the lesions.

#3: Swimmer’s Itch

Swimmer’s itch, or cercarial dermatitis, is a rash caused by an allergic reaction to parasites that burrow into your skin while you are swimming or wading in warm water. It most commonly occurs in freshwater lakes and ponds but can also occasionally appear in saltwater. Swimmer’s itch presents with tingling, burning, and/or itching of the skin. You may also develop small reddish pimples, and/or small blisters that appear within minutes or days after being in the water.

How to Avoid Swimmer’s Itch

The parasites that cause swimmer’s itch live in the blood of waterfowl and in mammals that live near ponds and lakes. To prevent swimmer’s itch, here are some tips:

  • Avoid swimming in areas where swimmer’s itch is known to be a problem or there are signs of possible contamination. Also avoid being in marshy areas where snails are commonly found.
  • Skip the bikini as swimmer’s itch usually affects only exposed skin that is not covered by a swimsuit, wet suits, or waders.
  • Always immediately rinse exposed skin after swimming, then dry your skin with a towel and launder your swimsuit.

How to Treat Swimmer’s Itch

While swimmer’s itch typically clears up on its own within a week or so, there are certain steps you can take to relieve itching:

  • Apply an over-the-counter (OTC) hydrocortisone cream.
  • Take an over-the-counter (OTC) oral corticosteroid or antihistamine, such as diphenhydramine.

If you have concerns about your swimmer’s itch call your doctor or other healthcare professional.

#4: Heat Rash

Heat rashes are skin problems that are caused by hot, humid weather conditions. It develops when blocked pores trap perspiration, or sweat, under your skin. Heat rashes can also appear because of friction, such as when thighs or arms rub together. Babies sometimes develop a heat rash in the skin folds of their neck, thighs, and arms or elbows. Symptoms include:

  • Red, itchy bumps
  • No sweat in the affected area
  • Skin inflammation and soreness

How to Avoid Heat Rash

To help protect yourself or your child from heat rash:

  • Avoid overdressing and tight fitting clothes.
  • When it’s hot outside, try to stay in the shade or in an air-conditioned building, or use a fan to help circulate the air.
  • Keep your sleeping area cool and well-ventilated.

How to Treat Heat Rash

Heat rash is usually not serious and often goes away quickly on its own. Most of the time, all you will need to do is avoid overheating for mild heat rash. Once the skin is cool, heat rash tends to quickly clear up.

Call your doctor or other healthcare professional if the heat rash does not go away after a few days – they may recommend special lotions to help relieve itching.

Final Thoughts on Common Skin Problems from Being Outdoors

Sometimes no matter how well we protect our skin, rashes still happen. So it’s a great idea to have a first aid kit handy for any irritations that may arise.

Lastly, be sure to always read and follow Drug Facts labels carefully. They tell you everything you need to know about the medicine, including the ingredients, what you are supposed to use it for, how much you should use, and when you should NOT use the product.

Meet Our Experts

Dr. Katie Friedman

Dr. Katie Friedman is a board certified pediatrician and specialist in pediatric emergency medicine. She is also a wife, and mother of two. Along with her sisters (Alison, a veterinarian and Carrie, a fashion stylist), she is a co-founder of Forever Freckled, a website dedicated to helping people with pets, children, and everyday lifestyle.