Common summer rashes: How to prevent and treat

As the coronavirus continues to spread throughout the country, many people may find themselves spending more time outdoors for a much-needed change of scenery. While gardening, hiking in the woods and swimming can provide relief amid continuous social distancing measures, dermatologists from the American Academy of Dermatology say the increased exposure to things like sunlight, insects and poisonous plants can cause some itchy and painful rashes. Fortunately, there are a few simple steps people can take to avoid unwanted rashes and other skin issues while still enjoying the outdoors.

poison ivy rash
Image/AAD

“If there are any benefits to this pandemic, it’s being able to spend more time outdoors, which is great for our mental and physical health,” says board-certified dermatologist Elizabeth Kiracofe, MD, FAAD. “When spending time outdoors, especially during the summer, it’s important to take proper precautions to avoid rashes such as heat rash and poison ivy, as well as sunburn, which can increase your risk for skin cancer.”

To help prevent and treat common summer rashes and other skin issues, Dr. Kiracofe recommends the following tips:

  • Heat rash: When your sweat glands are blocked, this can cause a heat rash and tiny, itchy bumps to appear on your skin. To help prevent a heat rash on hot days, wear lightweight and loose-fitting clothes made of cotton, and plan your outdoor activities during the coolest parts of the day when possible. At home, keep your skin cool using fans and air conditioning and by taking cool showers.
  • Poisonous plants: Many people get a rash after coming into contact with poisonous plants, such as poison ivy, oak, and sumac and wild parsnip. To prevent a rash from these types of plants, learn how to recognize them, and then avoid them. If spending time in a wooded area or a place known to have poisonous plants, cover up with clothing, including long sleeves, pants, socks, and boots. If you do come into contact with these plants, immediately rinse your skin with lukewarm, soapy water. Since the oils from poison ivy, oak and sumac can linger on objects for long periods of time, wash everything that may have come into contact with the plants, including your clothing. If you get a rash, leave any blisters alone, and avoid scratching. Apply calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream for relief. However, if the rash is extensive or not relieved by these medications, call a board-certified dermatologist.
  • Sunburn: Sunburn is better prevented than treated. To prevent sunburn, seek shade, wear sun-protective clothing — including a wide-brimmed hat — and apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to all skin not covered by clothing. Remember to reapply your sunscreen every two hours or after swimming or sweating. If you do get a sunburn, put a cold, damp towel on the area for 10-15 minutes a few times daily or take baths or showers in cool water to relieve pain. You can also apply moisturizer or a hydrocortisone cream. Avoid creams that contain petroleum, benzocaine or lidocaine, which can irritate your skin.
  • Swimmer’s itch: If you notice an itchy rash on your skin after wading or swimming in a lake or ocean, you may have swimmer’s itch. This rash is caused by parasites that burrow into your skin on areas that your swimsuit didn’t cover. If you develop this rash, do not go back in the water. Relieve the itch by applying a corticosteroid cream or cool compress or by soaking in a colloidal oatmeal bath.
  • Seabather’s eruption: Also called pica-pica, this itchy rash develops in people who go in the Caribbean Sea and the waters off the coasts of Florida and Long Island, New York. It happens when newly hatched jellyfish or sea anemones get trapped between your skin and your swimsuit, fins or other gear. The best way to prevent this rash is by staying out of infested water — often noted in nearby signage. However, if you think you’ve been exposed, remove your swimwear as soon as possible and rinse in fresh water. To kill any larvae trapped in the fabric, wash your swimwear in hot water and put it in the dryer. To relieve the itch, apply a cool compress, soak in a colloidal oatmeal bath, or apply calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream. Taking an antihistamine pill may also help.
  • Bug bites: Although most bug bites are harmless, some can spread dangerous diseases like Zika virus, dengue, Lyme disease and malaria. To prevent bug bites, particularly in areas with known insect-borne diseases, use insect repellent that contains 20 to 30% DEET and wear appropriate clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts, pants, socks and closed shoes instead of sandals. To treat painful bites, such as a bee sting, take an over-the-counter painkiller, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. For bites that itch, apply an ice pack or an over-the-counter anti-itch cream, such as hydrocortisone. To reduce swelling, apply an ice pack to the bite.
  • Face-mask irritation: Although wearing a face mask isn’t necessary for solo activities like yardwork, if you’re spending time outdoors around other people, it’s important to maintain social distancing and wear a face mask to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. However, wearing face masks could lead to skin problems — such as acne or dryness — without taking the proper precautions. To help avoid irritation caused by wearing a face mask, make sure your mask is snug, but comfortable and made out of breathable fabric, like cotton. Avoid synthetic fabrics, such as nylon, polyester and rayon, as these are more likely to irritate your skin and cause breakouts. Wash your mask after each use, and skip wearing makeup if you can. If you must wear makeup, look for products labeled “non-comedogenic” or “oil-free.” In addition, be gentle to your skin. Use mild, fragrance-free cleaners and moisturizers. Limit face washing to twice a day and after sweating and apply moisturizer before and after wearing your mask, especially if you have dry or sensitive skin.

“Most common summer rashes should go away within a few days or weeks,” says Dr. Kiracofe. “However, if a rash or other skin problem lingers or worsens, see a board-certified dermatologist for a proper diagnosis and treatment. During the pandemic, dermatology offices have taken extra precautions per state and local guidelines to ensure the health and safety of their patients, and many also offer virtual appointments.”


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