Katie Turnbull is a project manager for the Toronto and Regional Conservation Authority (TRCA). Nature is her livelihood, and she harbors equal parts love and respect for it. She has seen many times what happens when you have a simple misunderstanding with Mother Nature.
“My colleague’s brother had inherited some property and spent the day removing wild parsnip,” she says. “Unfortunately, he didn’t know what wild parsnip was, so he went over it with a lawn cutter. He was wearing shorts, so the vegetation got all over his legs and he started getting a rash and blistering.”
Wild parsnip is just one example of an invasive plant that can have serious effects on humans and pets. The toxic sap can get on the skin, and when exposed to UV light, can cause serious damage called phytophotodermatitis; brown spots, painful blisters and red rashes that resemble severe burns. If the sap enters the eye and is exposed to UV light, it can even cause blindness. Another culprit is giant hogweed, a risk the TRCA is actively educating the public about. For more images, go to RegionalDerm.com.
The irony is that these are beautiful plants, some flowering, further masking their sinister side effects. And they are an invasive species, meaning they are increasingly found in many parts of Ontario. If you are gardening, hiking or cottaging this summer, it’s advised you familiarize yourself with what these plants look like so you can steer clear.
The Ontario Invasive Plant Council has a developed best management practices – including photos — and people can also contact them to report sightings.
There is also an online resource available that maps invasive species throughout Ontario.
But it’s not only plants that can trigger phytophotodermatitis, says Sunnybrook dermatologist Dr. Joel DeKoven. He says a number of foods can also cause the same reaction when exposed to UV light. A classic example is having a drink outside and getting some lime or lemon juice on your skin. Just a small squirt can be enough to trigger a reaction, he says.
“If you are exposed to lemons and limes on your skin, don’t be outside,” he advises. Also, wash your skin immediately with soap and water and cover up to avoid any further UV exposure. Dr. DeKoven says occupations at especially high risk include bartenders and outdoor cooks, but it can happen to anyone at anytime.
He says many people are mystified about where these rashes and spots come from, and many don’t seek medical attention unless the reaction is severe. And while milder cases aren’t dangerous, they can be painful and slow to heal. Some treatment options include cool compresses, topical cortisone or oral steroids for more severe reactions.
Sunscreen is important all year long, and particularly during the summer months as our UV exposure increases. But Dr. DeKoven notes that sunscreen won’t offer any protection against the risk of phytophotodermatitis. Your best protection is awareness and avoiding exposure in the first place.