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How to prevent and treat summer rashes

29 Jun 2020

Hot weather, swimming, plants and even animals can cause skin rashes and itching. Our guide will help you to be prepared this summer

Quick facts

  • Hot, humid weather is a recipe for summertime skin rashes.
  • Some garden and forest plants can irritate the skin or increase sensitivity to sunlight.
  • Over-the-counter anti-itch creams from the pharmacy can help resolve many summer rashes.

Heat, perspiration and exposed skin are just a few of the factors that make summer the peak season for rashes. But there is plenty you can do to calm symptoms and reduce the risk of these skin irritations.

Heat rash (also known as prickly heat)

One of the most common summer skin problems is heat rash or prickly heat. This occurs when sweat glands become blocked and perspiration is trapped under the skin. It resembles a series of pinpricks and feels itchy and uncomfortable.

Children and babies are particularly prone to heat rash. It most often appears around the armpits, groin and other areas where sweat collects. Heat rash is not contagious.

Take a cool bath or shower, or apply a damp cloth or ice pack for up to 20 minutes at a time, to ease itching.

Calamine lotion will help calm symptoms. If it’s severe, a pharmacist may recommend hydrocortisone cream (for children over the age of 10) or oral antihistamines. Avoid using scented shower gels or creams.

Allergies

Skin allergies such as eczema (atopic dermatitis) may flare up in the summer due to exposure to pollen and in those who suffer from hay fever. Again, areas where sweat accumulates are most likely to be affected.

Eczema is characterised by dry, cracked and itchy skin and is treated with a moisturising emollient. Choose the right one for specific problems:

  • Lotion thin and easily spread, this is best for damaged or hairy skin
  • Sprays are ideal for skin that is sore, infected, or hard to reach
  • Creams are readily absorbed, which makes them good for daytime use
  • Ointments are best for very dry, thickened skin and night-time use.

Topical steroid creams can also help eczema. These come in a range of strengths, from mild creams which are available over the counter, to much stronger prescription-strength formulations.

Problem plants

Stinging nettles are a common cause of rashes. These perennial plants are covered with hollow stinging ‘hairs’, or needles. These inject stinging chemicals into the skin.

You’ll know immediately if you’ve come into contact with stinging nettles as pinpricks of pain are quickly followed by raised white or red bumps on the skin. Wash the affected area to clear any hairs and avoid scratching the rash — it should begin to subside after an hour or two.

Calamine lotion will help ease the irritation. Some people swear by rubbing the rash with a dock leaf — though the science on this is light.

Occasionally nettles can provoke a more extreme allergic response. If you or someone in your family has a history of allergies, ask your doctor or a pharmacist about the correct precautions.

Some plants — including daisies, anemones, clematis, euphorbia and hellebore — contain chemicals which are skin irritants. And others, such as rue, hogweed and parsnip plants contain sap which makes skin extremely sensitive to sunlight.

Wash off the irritant as quickly as possible and apply calamine lotion. Seek advice from a pharmacist in cases of severe rash or discomfort.

Citrus juice can also cause this sort of photosensitivity, so be careful to rinse any spills when you’re out in the sun.

Swimming rashes and itches

Swimmer’s itch — or cercarial dermatitis — is an itchy rash caused by tiny worms called schistosomes. These parasites are becoming increasingly common in freshwater lakes and ponds throughout Europe and the UK. They’re particularly prominent where there are water birds and mammals. You are more likely to encounter them in warm, shallow water — which makes children particularly susceptible.

The rash resembles reddish pimples or blisters and can appear within minutes, or days, after swimming or paddling in infested water. Areas covered by swimsuits or waders will not be affected, but symptoms tend to worsen after each exposure.

Avoid swimming in areas known to be affected, and minimise the risk by rinsing and drying exposed skin immediately after leaving the water. Use a waterproof sunscreen, as there are reports that this provides some protection from the parasites.

Swimmer’s itch usually clears in a couple of days. But in the meantime, apply cool compresses, soak in a bath of Epsom salt or baking soda, and use an over-the-counter corticosteroid cream if necessary. See your doctor if the rash persists for more than 3 days, or if there is any sign of pus, as this could indicate an infection.

Some blue-green algae release toxins which cause rashes and illness. These have been found in waters as diverse as England’s Lake District to the southern beaches of Sweden. These algae blooms are usually short-lived — but avoid swimming where you see them. The rash is an allergic reaction and severity will depend on the length of exposure and concentration of algae. The treatments for allergies, above, will help ease symptoms.

Heavily chlorinated pools and the hard, chalky water found in the south and east of England, can also cause atopic eczema and contact dermatitis. It’s wise to rinse off after swimming and apply an emollient, especially if you’re prone to these problems. A spray-on emollient provides quick, all-over relief.

Last updated:
29 Jun 2020