How to identify the itch – rash, bug bite, or something else

If you enjoy spending time outdoors during the warmer months, it’s inevitable that you will run into pesky plants or annoying insects, especially in Pennsylvania.

To avoid succumbing to these seasonal woes, it is important to know what condition you are dealing with, how to avoid these pests, and ways to treat your unpleasant reaction to a rash or bug bite.

Poisonous Plants and Identifying Rashes

The most common poisonous plants that you are likely to encounter are poison ivy, poison sumac, and poison oak. They contain the same oil-like chemical that causes itching and the blistering of skin. 

Everyone’s sensitivity to this chemical, urushiol, varies. You may have been exposed several times before and never developed a rash. In other cases, it only takes one exposure for your body to become familiar with the oil and cause red and bumpy patches that develop wherever the plant has touched your skin.

Even though you may be sensitive to urushiol, you may have a declining intensity of the side effects that it causes over time. For example, if symptoms of poison ivy, oak, or sumac show at a young age, they might not show as often or as intense in the later years of life. 

It is also important to note that the rash caused by these plants is not contagious from person to person. However, the urushiol itself can be transferred from the plant to clothes or objects. The chemical doesn’t necessarily need to be on a plant to cause the rash.

Treating Plant Rashes

Follow these tips to treat various plant rashes:

  • To help get rid of the infecting oil-like chemical, wash the affected area with warm, soapy water.
  • Make sure to immediately wash the clothing that was worn when you were in contact with the poisonous plant. Also wash any object that might have also touched the plant.
  • To avoid infection, do not scratch or pick at blisters.
  • Itching can be relieved with topical lotions or creams like calamine or hydrocortisone, applying cold compresses, taking short lukewarm baths, and even taking antihistamine pills.

Identifying Bug Bites and Stings

Bugs can also be the culprit of causing itchiness and unusual marks on your skin this summer. In Pennsylvania, it is common to be bitten by mosquitoes, spiders, ticks, or flies or stung by bees or wasps. Each kind of bite or sting has unique identifiers. It is important to know what they look like so that you can remedy them the most effective way.

  • Mosquito – Raised, round surface. May feel dense and can become easy irritated.
  • Spiders – Two fang marks, plus a red wound and a bump where the bite occurred. Other spider bites may begin as a red spot with redness and swelling. With time, this area lightens and becomes an irritated blister, bullseye pattern. This blister may become crusty and have the black and blue coloring of a bruise.
  • Ticks – Small rash (size of a quarter), bullseye pattern. May have a black dot in the center.
  • Flies – Swollen, painful, red, itchy welt/bump.
  • Stings – White spot surrounded by red welt, immediate pain.

Treating Bug Bites and Stings

The plant or insect that gives you a reaction determines the kind of treatment you should apply. Some basic first-aid tips can be used as soon as you notice a bite or sting:

  • Cleanse the area to prevent dirt from infecting the bite and to wash away any remaining venom.
  • Elevate the area if possible and use an ice pack to reduce swelling and pain.
  • Use antihistamine medications or make a baking-soda paste with water to reduce pain and itching.

When to Seek Medical Care

Whether it’s a bug or plant that has caused you harm, you should know when you need to seek medical care. 

The first thing to look out for is anaphylactic reactions. These reactions mean that you are allergic to the bite and you should seek immediate medical care. Anaphylaxis is serious and can be deadly.

Seek immediate care if you experience:

  • Chest tightening/Shortness of breath
  • Lightheadedness
  • Swelling in other areas of the body, not just the site of the bite
  • Nausea, diarrhea, or stomach cramping
  • Hives or rash
  • Fatigue/Drowsiness

For rashes caused by plants, seek care if your rash shows no signs of improvement after a week of infection, you have a fever, pus, or tenderness on the rash, or if itching gets worse.

Holly Shadle is a certified registered nurse practitioner with UPMC Dermatology and sees patients at UPMC Williamsport, 1205 Grampian Blvd. To schedule an appointment with Holly Shadle, call 570-326-8060. For more information, visit


  • On the PULSE

    On the PULSE is an online media outlet in Northcentral, Pennsylvania. We specialize in in-depth journalism, human interest content and video features. Our mission is to build engagement in community through local news.

On the PULSE

On the PULSE is an online media outlet in Northcentral, Pennsylvania. We specialize in in-depth journalism, human interest content and video features. Our mission is to build engagement in community through local news.