Contact Dermatitis

Plant Dermatitis: More Than Just Poison Ivy

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Patch Testing to Plants

When a patient presents with recurrent or persistent dermatitis and a plant contact allergen is suspected, patch testing is indicated. Most comprehensive patch test series contain various plant allergens, such as sesquiterpene lactones, Compositae mix, and limonene hydroperoxides, and patch testing to a specialized plant series may be necessary. Poison ivy/oak/sumac allergens typically are not included in patch test series because of the high prevalence of allergic reactions to these chemicals and the likelihood of sensitization when patch testing with urushiol. Compositae contact sensitization can be difficult to diagnose because neither sesquiterpene lactone mix 0.1% nor parthenolide 0.1% are sensitive enough to pick up all Compositae allergies.33,34 Paulsen and Andersen34 proposed that if Compositae sensitization is suspected, testing should include sesquiterpene lactone, parthenolide, and Compositae mix II 2.5%, as well as other potential Compositae allergens based on the patient’s history.34

Because plants can have geographic variability and contain potentially unknown allergens,35 testing to plant components may increase the diagnostic yield of patch testing. Dividing the plant into component parts (ie, stem, bulb, leaf, flower) is helpful, as different components have different allergen concentrations. It is important to consult expert resources before proceeding with plant component patch testing because irritant reactions are frequent and may confound the testing.36

Prevention and Treatment

For all plant dermatoses, the mainstay of prevention is to avoid contact with the offending plant material. Gloves can be an important protective tool for plant dermatitis prevention; the correct material depends on the plant species being handled. Rubber gloves should not be worn to protect against Toxicodendron plants since the catechols in urushiol are soluble in rubber; vinyl gloves should be worn instead.6 Marks37 found that tuliposide A, the allergen in the Peruvian lily (Alstroemeria), penetrates both vinyl and latex gloves; it does not penetrate nitrile gloves. If exposed, the risk of dermatitis can be decreased if the allergen is washed away with soap and water as soon as possible. Some allergens such as Toxicodendron are absorbed quickly and need to be washed off within 10 minutes of exposure.6 Importantly, exposed gardening gloves may continue to perpetuate ACD if the allergen is not also washed off the gloves themselves.

For light-mediated dermatoses, sun avoidance or use of an effective sunscreen can reduce symptoms in an individual who has already been exposed.10 UVA light activates psoralen-mediated dermatitis but not until 30 to 120 minutes after absorption into the skin.38

Barrier creams are thought to be protective against plant ACD through a variety of mechanisms. The cream itself is meant to reduce skin contact to an allergen or irritant. Additionally, barrier creams contain active ingredients such as silicone, hydrocarbons, and aluminum chlorohydrate, which are thought to trap or transform offending agents before contacting the skin. When contact with a Toxicodendron species is anticipated, Marks et al39 found that dermatitis was absent or significantly reduced when 144 patients were pretreated with quaternium-18 bentonite lotion 5% (P<.0001).

Although allergen avoidance and use of gloves and barrier creams are the mainstays of preventing plant dermatoses, treatment often is required to control postexposure symptoms. For all plant dermatoses, topical corticosteroids can be used to reduce inflammation and pruritus. In some cases, systemic steroids may be necessary. To prevent rebound of dermatitis, patients often require a 3-week or longer course of oral steroids to quell the reaction, particularly if the dermatitis is vigorous or an id reaction is present.40 Antihistamines and cold compresses also can provide symptomatic relief.

Final Interpretation

Plants can cause a variety of dermatoses. Although Toxicodendron plants are the most frequent cause of ACD, it is important to keep in mind that florists, gardeners, and farmers are exposed to a large variety of allergens, irritants, and phototoxic agents that cause dermatoses as well. Confirmation of plant-induced ACD involves patch testing against suspected species. Prevention involves use of appropriate barriers and avoidance of implicated plants. Treatment includes topical steroids, antihistamines, and prednisone.


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