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Citrus plus sun can equal skin rash

11:43 AM, Jul 4, 2013   |    comments
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Romance gone wrong might not be the only hazard in Margaritaville.

Some citrus fruits - such as limes often squeezed into summer drinks can leave a residue on the skin, which causes a painful rash when exposed to the sun.

It's called phytophotodermatitis, also known as margarita dermatitis or bartender dermatitis, says Seth Orlow, chairman of the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at New York University's Langone Medical Center. Experts say the skin reaction is frequently seen on holidays or long summer weekends.

The most common form of the condition, Orlow says, makes the skin more sensitive to ultraviolet rays because of a class of photosensitizing chemicals called furocoumarins, found in certain plants, especially citrus fruits such as limes and bergamot oranges.

The chemical, when in contact with the skin, is activated by the sun, causing rashes or blistering. Reactions may be short-lived and in many cases may even go unnoticed, but symptoms such as skin discoloration may be longer lasting. Brown streaks could also show up on skin or around the mouth a few days after squeezing or sucking on the fruit in an attempt to spice up a snack or drink.

Howard Brooks, a dermatologist and medical director of SKIN Cosmetic Dermatology of Georgetown in Washington, D.C., says that in more serious cases, the rash may look and feel like poison ivy, but "most physicians can easily tell the difference."

"Even if you are incorrectly diagnosed, the treatments are very similar," he adds.

Orlow says limes aren't the only fruit or veggie that can cause a reaction - figs, carrots, parsley and celery can also cause a similar rash.

"I don't know of statistics as to its frequency," he says, "but dermatologists see it in the summer and also when people return from vacations in sunny areas at other times of the year."

Brooks says many cases show up in bartenders or people who handle fruits and vegetables. They think wiping the juice off with a towel will do the trick, but that's not true - a residue remains.

The best way to prevent the unsightly reaction is to wash off juice residue with soap and water after handling the citrus troublemaker. However, once a skin reaction occurs, "there really isn't much to be done to hasten disappearance of the excess pigmentation," Orlow says.

The good news, Brooks says, is that the condition is easily treated with over-the-counter medicines such as hydrocortisone cream or a quick visit to a dermatologist for something stronger.

"(Phytophotodermatitis) is something to be aware of, but it's not something to be worried about," he says.

Lindsay Friedman, USA TODAY

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