Ah, summer: The time of year when everyone is outside hanging out, cooking, and swilling many cold beverages to beat the heat. But making many of those drinks — margaritas, beer, or even ice water — in the sun could have a painful result: “Lime” disease.
No, not “Lyme” disease, but rather, phytophotodermatitis, a skin condition that happens as a result of sensitivity to chemicals in certain plants and fruits — including limes and other citrus fruits, mangoes, celery, wild parsnip, wild dill, wild parsley, and buttercups.
It’s not just people mixing up margaritas at a backyard cookout who may contract phytophotodermatitis, as the Centers for Disease Control points to a noteworthy outbreak among grocery store cashiers in Ohio in 1984: Several workers broke out in rashes, which was later attributed to handling a lot of celery.
Chefs, bartenders, and other people who handle a lot of citrus fruit on a daily basis are also particularly susceptible.
When those plant chemicals are exposed to sunlight or other ultraviolet light, it can burn the skin — much like a sunburn. You can also develop a red, itchy patch, similar to eczema, or have some discoloration, for anywhere up to three days after contact with the chemicals.
If you can handle it, the Annals for Emergency Medicine has a photo of one guy’s particularly gross looking rash/blistery thing. Click here if you dare.
How Can I Avoid This?
According to Dr. Jessica J. Krant — a dermatologist at the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York — the key to avoiding phytophotodermatitis “is to realize that it’s the oils in the skin of citrus fruit (especially limes) that interacts with the sun.”
To prevent getting burned, she recommends:
1. Avoiding contact with the fruits, skins, or oils — use gloves to be extra careful
2. Wash any contacted skin with soap and water before sun exposure
3. Wear plenty of sunscreen everywhere to reduce the reaction to UV rays even after inadvertently touching the oils (or having them spray onto your skin surreptitiously while squeezing).
The Mayo Clinic also warns folks to be careful when enjoying the great outdoors:
1. Wear long pants and sleeves when hiking lest you brush up against any wild plants with phytophotodermatitis-causing chemicals.
2. When building a fire: Never put wild plants into a fire, because if wild parsnip or other plants that contain these pesky chemicals are burned, they can be dispersed into the air and come into contact with your skin.
What Do I Do If I Get Burned?
If it’s not a severe case, there’s no need to rush out to the doctor: Time will heal this kind of wound with a little extra help from moist dressing — like a cool, wet cloth — local wound care, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for pain relief and inflammation, note the authors of Phytophotodermatitis: The Other “Lime” Disease.
Topical corticosteroids can also be used to help with pain and inflammation.
If you do have a severe case — with more than 30% of your total body surface area involved — you should go to the hospital.
And again, slather on that sunscreen — one with ultraviolet A protection to keep the damage from getting worse.