How Lime Juice, Grapefruit and More Cause Sunburn or Phytophotodermatitis

Consuming certain fruits may lead your child to develop phytophotodermatitis

Little boy holding glass in front of lemonade
Compassionate Eye Foundation/Alejandra Aguirre/Digital Vision/Getty Images

The mother of a young child was concerned and confused about these hyperpigmented streaks that appeared on her son's upper chest during the first two weeks of the summer. The child was otherwise healthy and taking no medications. Was it poison ivy or poison oak? 

The child had been playing outdoors without a shirt for the past couple of weeks. After thinking about it a bit more, the mother remembered that her son was playing with lemon slices from a lemonade jar.

Curious about how citrus fruits can make skin more vulnerable to the sun? Learn more with this overview about the skin condition citrus fruits cause. Take steps to prevent your little one from developing this painful problem. 

The Link Between Citrus Fruits and Sunburn

Parents take a number of precautions to stop children from developing sunburn during the summer, but many do not know that common food and drinks, such as lime juice, lemonade, grapefruit or even celery may put children at risk for a nasty sunburn.

Many people enjoy downing summer drinks such as fresh limeade or lemonade or eating citrus fruits or celery to cool off when the weather gets warm. Afterward, however, some parents and children regret their choice of drink or snack. That's because certain photosensitizing plant compounds, much like certain medications, make the skin extra sensitive to sunlight. The result can leave you feeling burned and bummed.

But there is an easy solution: Wash your hands and your entire face after consuming citrus fruits or celery.

What Is Phytophotodermatitis?

Citrus fruits and celery can cause a sun-induced skin sensitivity condition known as "phytophotodermatitis." The condition occurs when dripping juice from fruits such as limes, lemons, oranges, grapefruit, celery or even parsnip or fennel come into contact with the skin.

Other plants may produce the same effect in certain individuals, so check with a medical professional if you fear you're at risk.

Symptoms usually develop within 24 to 48 hours after sunlight exposure. Patients may have initial burning erythema followed by blisters. Phytophotodermatitis can cause strong reactions, resulting in sunburn, rash, hives and blistering. Others may be unaffected by the condition, even if juice from the offending fruits touches their skin. Those vulnerable to sunburn, however, should take precautions.

Most sun-related skin conditions, such as sunburn, affect all areas of skin that are exposed to sunlight. But phytophotodermatitis is different because its reaction is triggered specifically by chemicals on the skin so only the skin affected by those toxins reacts when exposed to the light. The reaction may appear in unusual patterns of streaks, drips or as fingerprints or handprints. The handprint formation is common on children because if an adult has the chemicals on their hands and applies sunscreen to their child or touches their skin, the reaction will only appear in the area. 

Parents and childcare providers should make sure kids wash their hands and faces carefully (or even arms and legs if they are particularly messy eaters) before heading outdoors.

Why risk exposing a child to sunburn, blisters or hives if these conditions can easily be prevented? Explain the risk to children if they resist washing up after consuming citrus fruits and other plants that cause phytophotodermatitis. If the child won't cooperate, keep him inside or deny him citrus fruits when it's hot outside. 

Treatment of Phytophotodermatitis

Treatment for phytophotodermatitis can typically be done at home without medical intervention. Wash the area using mild soap and water, or soak in a cool oatmeal bath to soothe your skin. Then wet a washcloth with cool water and put it on your rash.

Do this several times a day. This will help decrease itching, pain, and swelling. You amy use anti-itch creams directly on the area, but do not use them on broken skin. Always wear sunscreen, especially because your skin may be sensitive to the sun after you get phytophotodermatitis. If the area is persistently painful, or if blisters are severe, talk to your doctor.

Prevention Stops Phytophotodermatitis

Prevention stands out as the best way to stop a child or adult from developing phytophotodermatitis. But if you or your children manage to develop the condition anyway, use hydrocortisone cream to reduce inflammation and a cool washcloth to soothe the burn. Severe cases may require oral antihistamines or even a steroid shot or pill. Consider bringing along those wet wipes or damp washcloths placed in a plastic bag for an easy way to wash off.

Sources:

Moreau, Jacqueline F., Joseph C. English, and Robin P. Gehris. "Phytophotodermatitis." Journal of pediatric and adolescent gynecology 27.2 (2014): 93-94.

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