Allergic Reactions at the Campground

Family camping near a lake

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Most people have wonderful memories of spending summer days at the campground. Camping is an American tradition, whether it’s in the mountains, at the beach, in the desert, or even in the backyard. Just about any outdoor activity that involves spending the night in a tent, trailer or RV or just out under the stars in a sleeping bag counts as camping. Outdoor activities such as hiking, swimming, and just sitting around the campfire are what make camping really special. Unfortunately, people with allergies need to take extra precautions while camping, as many activities can worsen allergy symptoms.

Mosquito Allergy

What’s a camping trip without mosquitoes? Just about any outdoor activity on a summer evening involves the buzz of a swarm of mosquitoes, looking for a good meal. While just an annoyance to most people, some people can experience allergic reactions as a result of mosquito bites. Local reactions with swelling, redness, and itching are most common; rare reactions may include all-over hives, trouble breathing, and even anaphylaxis. Measures to control mosquito bites (such as wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants and using mosquito-repellant) and taking an antihistamine before being bitten may help to reduce symptoms of mosquito allergy.

Poison Oak, Poison Ivy, and Poison Sumac

There’s nothing like a good hike in the woods in the early morning on a camping trip. Contact with a three-leafed friend may make for a miserable day, however. Many of us have come into contact with poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac at one time or another – of course, there's a chance that we might not remember when we actually came into contact with these plants, but we certainly won’t forget the itchy rash that came as the result.

Plants from the Toxicodendron family are the most common cause of allergic contact dermatitis and include poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. Coming into contact with these plants results in the deposition of oils from the leaves onto the skin, which can cause an itchy rash consisting of a linear, or streak-like group of blisters or bumps. Prevention includes avoiding these plants, washing the exposed area with soap and water immediately, and if the rash still occurs, treating the area with topical corticosteroid creams.

Allergic Rashes From Swimming

A good old-fashioned swimming hole can be the best-kept secret of a good campsite. An unexpected surprise might occur a few hours after water exposure, however. Swimming in a freshwater lake or in the ocean can lead to itchy rashes. Swimmer's itch occurs when people swim in water contaminated with parasites. Generally, swimmer's itch occurs in freshwater, where aquatic birds and snails are likely to live. These animals serve as carriers for the parasite, although when this parasite enters human skin, it causes an irritating allergic rash as it dies. Treatment includes topical corticosteroids and oral antihistamines.

Seabather's eruption is a different type of allergic rash that occurs after swimming in the ocean and being exposed to jellyfish larvae. These larvae get trapped between a person's skin and bathing suit, resulting in an itchy skin rash on areas covered by clothing. These symptoms usually start while the person is still swimming, but may also occur hours later. Rubbing the skin often makes the symptoms worse, since the larvae release toxins into the skin as a result of pressure or friction. Treatment also includes topical corticosteroids and oral antihistamines.

Sunscreen Allergies

The growing concern over skin damage and skin cancer has led most people to use sunscreen before spending a day at the beach. This increased use of sunscreens has lead to the development of allergic reactions to the chemicals found in sunscreens. Most of these allergic reactions are due to contact dermatitis, which occurs on the skin within hours of sunscreen application. This reaction can occur anywhere the substance is applied to the body, although it tends to be more common on the areas of the body with the most exposure to the sun. Prevention includes using a type of sunscreen to which a person is not allergic, or using a hypoallergenic barrier sunblock (such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide). Topical corticosteroid creams are useful for the treatment of a rash caused by sunscreen allergy.

Barbeque Allergy

Everyone loves a barbeque after a long day at the campground. Certain types of wood (such as mesquite, oak, cedar, and hickory) are burned, the smoke from which adds flavor to the barbequed meat. Wood is obtained from trees that produce pollen to which many people with seasonal allergies are allergic. The allergen in the pollen also is present in the wood of the tree; these allergens survive combustion and remain in smoke once the wood is burned. Therefore, it is possible to be allergic to the smoke, and to any food barbequed with the smoke. Prevent this problem by trying to avoid direct smoke exposure and cooking food over a fuel source such as propane or butane.

Allergies to Insect Stings

What would camping be without the annoying yellow jackets or wasps swarming around the campsite? Unfortunately, people get insect stings commonly during the summertime, and allergic reactions to these stings can be extremely dangerous. Prevent insect stings by not looking or smelling like a flower, avoiding walking barefoot (especially through grass or clover), not drinking from open cans of soda or other sweet beverages (yellow jackets love to crawl into these cans), and cleaning up trash and leftover food as soon as possible after eating. Treat local reactions with ice packs and oral antihistamines; severe allergic reactions require the use of injectable epinephrine and seeking immediate medical care.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Seda J, Horrall S. Mosquito Bites. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Updated November 22, 2019.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Poisonous plants. Updated August 7, 2018.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cercarial Dermatitis (Swimmer's Itch). Updated October 22, 2018.

  4. Heurung AR, Raju SI, Warshaw EM. Adverse reactions to sunscreen agents: epidemiology, responsible irritants and allergens, clinical characteristics, and management. Dermatitis. 2014;25(6):289-326. doi: 10.1097/DER.0000000000000079

  5. Kashyap RR, Kashyap RS. Oral allergy syndrome: an update for stomatologists. J Allergy (Cairo). 2015;2015:543928. doi: 10.1155/2015/543928

  6. Przybilla B, Ruëff F. Insect stings: clinical features and management. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2012;109(13):238-48. doi: 10.3238/arztebl.2012.0238