Squash Hands: Details on This Unsavory Surprise of the Season
Pumpkins, zucchini, and butternut squash are all in abundance during the autumn months. While these savory staples of the season are beautiful to look at and delicious to eat, they can also trigger an unsightly situation when it comes to your skin. It's called 'Squash Hands' and it can cause quite the fright to those who are preparing this fall fruit.
After experiencing this condition first hand, I spoke with Dr. Michelle Tarbox, an associate professor of dermatology and dermatopathology at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, who also has a background in plant biology.
"Squash Hands is an irritant contact dermatitis. The reaction tends to happen very, very quickly, within 10 to 15 minutes of handling the squash," Dr. Tarbox said. "It also doesn't seem to require previous episodes of exposure to that substance to create the reaction. For full disclosure, they have not figured out what substance in squash and pumpkins causes this problem, but they suspect that it is a liquid moiety. The skin sensation change that is typically described with this condition is a sensation of tightness."
This is also accompanied with redness, extreme itchiness, a waxy feeling on the skin, and in severe cases, blistering of the skin. Worst of all, some people experience these symptoms for days after the exposure.
"I've personally experienced it, so I empathize with anybody who goes through it," Dr. Tarbox stated.
Interestingly enough, Dr. Tarbox noted that not every squash will bring a reaction. The response will depend on how much you are handling the gourd (e.g. cutting it into large slices or small chunks), the ripeness of the individual squash (the more ripe, the less likely a reaction will occur), and the origin of the crop (different varietals and different plants can have varying levels of the irritant). Thankfully, when it comes to prevention, the solution is simple.
"The general recommendation is that if a person has this reaction when they're preparing any kind of raw fruit or vegetable, they should use barrier protection the next time they were handling that plant to avoid having similar reactions," Dr. Tarbox advised. "So the simplest and most straightforward way to prevent squash hands is to not let the squash touch your hands. This means wearing any kind of food safe gloves to help prevent contact between the skin and the irritating chemical."
Are Some People More Prone to Squash Hands?
"People who have a pre-existing dermatitis already have less protection from irritating things because they're barriers not complete most of the time, putting them at a potentially greater risk of having this condition. However, people with healthy skin are also still potentially at risk to develop the reaction as well," Dr. Tarbox noted.
What is the Best Treatment For Squash Hands?
"The first impetus is to try to get whatever it is off of your hands and to do that many people will actually reach for a strong soap, but that can exacerbate the condition because then the skin is already irritated," Dr. Tarbox said. "What's generally recommended is to rinse the skin with a gentle soap and then to put on a topical steroid medicine. This will help with the inflammation in the acute period."
Dr. Tarbox also noted that the best remedies are either an ointment or Vaseline because these are less likely to contain chemicals that can irritate the skin. However, if you want to avoid petroleum-based products, Waxelene is an ointment made from beeswax that can have a similar effect (as long as you are not allergic to this substance). Additionally, antihistamines can be beneficial, especially if there's an allergic component to your reaction.
Does a Skin Irritation Mean I Can't Eat Squash Anymore?
To answer this question, I spoke with her husband, Dr. James Tarbox, an allergist and Immunologist with Texas Tech Physicians.
"The reaction seems to localize to the skin with those afflicted still being able to eat the squash," he said.
Both doctors went on to note that when these fruits are prepared properly, AKA cooked, they don't tend to trigger a gastrointestinal response. That is not to say that some people won't have systemic allergies to squash, but to completely cut it out of your diet based on this scenario is not warranted the majority of the time.
What it means is that your zucchini boats, butternut squash soup, spaghetti squash pasta, and fall's favorite dessert, pumpkin pie, should remain in the rotation of dishes that you enjoy. Just take precautions when preparing these glorious gourds.