Contact Dermatitis from Mulch?

blueheron(z6 PA)June 27, 2011

I have noticed lately that whenever I go out into the garden, I get an itch all over my ankles. I'm wondering if it's from the mulch. I don't even have to step on the mulch, just walk around the garden and check the plants from the lawn and I still get the itching. We've had a lot of rain this spring, I don't know if that would cause it.

I never had this problem before and it baffles me. I can wear wellies, of course, but that gets kind of hot in the summer.

I know mulch can cause allergic reactions from the mold spores when spreading it, like coughing and sneezing, but I never heard of it causing a dermatitis just by walking around it. Anybody else ever had this problem?

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meldy_nva(z6b VA)

I've been using all sorts of mulches for over (gulp) 60 years and the only *contact* problems I've had come from straw (scratches), and from locally available shredded leaves. Unfortunately, both my own county and a nearby city mix in a lot of lime (way too much!) as they shred the leaves and if you get it too soon after they do it, it is possible to get hot, burn-looking rashes on your skin. But you have to actually handle the stuff before getting a reaction. A neighbor got a rash from handling plant material which had been sprayed with a well-known brand of weed-killer, but again, that was true contact with the offender.

Frankly, it sounds more like some kind of bitty bugs are biting you! In general, to have a reaction to something without actually coming in contact (or realizing you are in contact) means the culprit is airborne such as bugs (fleas, gnats, etc) or possibly a fine mist which has an offending material dissolved in it. Think of poison ivy: you can look at it and walk by it, but you won't get it unless you either touch the plant itself or are touched by smoke containing the urushiol, or something which has the offending 'sap' on it [so yes, you can get it from petting a dog which just rolled on P.Ivy). The fact that you rash when nearby but not actually in contact with the mulch seems to eliminate a reaction to mold spores, otherwise you'd react whenever downwind of the mold.

Why not go to a dermatologist and present him/her with the problem?

    Bookmark   June 27, 2011 at 2:13PM
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Sounds like chiggers to me...i hate them

    Bookmark   June 27, 2011 at 3:02PM
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jazmynsmom(Z5 Madison-ish)

Could be a mold or fungus growing anywhere in your yard (lawn included)... not necessarily restricted to mulch. A lot of rain would definitely exacerbate that. Have you had a panel work up with an allergist? Have you tried taking Zyrtec or Claratin for a few days and seeing if there's a difference? Does a little topical Benedryl seem to calm your ankles?

    Bookmark   June 27, 2011 at 3:27PM
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I'm wondering what type of mulch you are using. I get an intense itching sometimes just from digging and pulling weeds. Dried grass mulch causes itching for me that only a shower takes care of. It It is possible to react to something that has never bothered you before.

    Bookmark   June 27, 2011 at 7:01PM
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I agree with pamven, I hate chiggers almost as much as ticks. Long socks help against chiggers in my experience.

    Bookmark   June 27, 2011 at 8:12PM
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tibs(5/6 OH)

Yikes! Now I am worried. I spread mulch bare handed and do all my digging bare handed. How else can you pull out vinca that has invaded your flower bed? You have to tease the vinca roots from the peony roots. Am I going to come down with the creeping crud?!

    Bookmark   June 27, 2011 at 9:46PM
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blueheron(z6 PA)

I never thought of chiggers. I googled them and the picture of the blisters caused by the bites doesn't look like what I had. I just get an itchy rash almost instantaneously after exposure.

I do tend to get bitten by mosquitoes but I try to stay inside when they are most active - early in the morning and evening when the sun is going down.

We live in a retirement community and the mulch is provided by the management, so I don't know what's in it exactly. I will just be sure to wear wellies or long pants when working in the garden.

    Bookmark   June 27, 2011 at 9:51PM
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lindac(Iowa Z 5/4)

chiggers don't bite bare ankles....they go into tight places, folds of skin or under your waist band or around the top of a tight sock.
That colored mulch may be made form some treated lumber and you may be having a reaction to that....or perhaps to the dye.
Linda C

    Bookmark   June 28, 2011 at 9:33AM
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I've been having the same problem. Sometimes it's actual bites and I know it's fleas,and other times it's just a rash. Being in Pa also,maybe it's just something "going around" and will end when it gets hot and more dry. So now I wear socks out there and I hate them but for awhile I'll keep them on.

    Bookmark   June 28, 2011 at 11:26AM
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blueheron(z6 PA)

Linda, the mulch isn't colored. It's just regular old brown mulch.

Oh, I'm glad I'm not the only one having this problem, Marda. I wonder if it is a PA thing. Odd....

    Bookmark   June 28, 2011 at 12:55PM
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jazmynsmom(Z5 Madison-ish)

Is the retirement community spraying pesticides/herbicides on your lawn?

    Bookmark   June 28, 2011 at 1:11PM
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blueheron(z6 PA)

There is a lawn care outfit that takes care of the whole outdoor area and I think they do spread a weed killer/fertilizer on the lawn. I see a guy riding a kind of giant spreader and I assume that's what he's doing. No sprays, though.

I have a perennial/annual garden here and I don't use any chemicals on my garden and I see lots of birds, pollinators, etc. But I can't control what the management does in the common areas. I can tell them not to mulch my garden and they will comply. Maybe I will try that next year.

I've often thought of suggesting to them that they use more ground cover to save mowing and fertilizing, etc., which would also be a money saver. They are very open to the residents' suggestions, so maybe I should.

    Bookmark   June 28, 2011 at 2:15PM
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Mulch isn't what it used to be. When I first got into the industry, pretty much the types you'd find were pine bark in various shreds or chunks and cypress. Not anymore. You are liable to find it composed of just about any wood product, including chaff from the lumber industry, telephone pole discards, old pallets and wood treated with various chemicals. You might try to find out where they get their mulch and then whether it is a pure product or a conglomeration.

Makes you wonder if there is anything volatile in the mulch. If there is, the offending substance can be airborn and you wouldn't have to make direct contact with it.

    Bookmark   June 28, 2011 at 9:54PM
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blueheron(z6 PA)

I thought I'd just go out this afternoon and zap some Japanese beetles with insecticidal soap and I stayed mostly on the lawn, but wouldn't you know it - my ankles started itching minutes after I came in the house.

So maybe it's on the lawn AND the mulch. I mentioned it to a few people here and they seemed as puzzled as I am, so I don't think anybody else has the same problem although most people don't have as extensive a garden as I do.

I bet the lawn care company does use the cheapest mulch they can. They blow it out of enormous hoses on all the gardens and common areas here.

    Bookmark   June 30, 2011 at 8:59PM
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jazmynsmom(Z5 Madison-ish)

The mulch really sounds like a red herring to me.

    Bookmark   July 1, 2011 at 11:11AM
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did you try using Off and/or cover your ankles with socks? Is it the bugs in the lawn or is it the lawn?

    Bookmark   July 1, 2011 at 1:17PM
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blueheron(z6 PA)

I wear wellies or long pants now. I don't know what's causing the rash/itching, if it's bugs or chemicals from the lawn treatment or mold spores from the mulch.

    Bookmark   July 1, 2011 at 3:57PM
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Wow. To be so covered up, and something is still affecting you? Hm.

    Bookmark   July 1, 2011 at 4:12PM
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blueheron(z6 PA)

Sorry, I wasn't clear - when I wear wellies, I'm not bothered. I just hate to have to cover up just to run outside to do some gardening work. When I forget, that's when I get the rash that I don't know the cause of.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2011 at 5:41PM
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To rule out fleas, try wearing some white socks while you're outside. Fleas can be seen very well on white socks. To rule out other bugs, put some vaseline around your ankles and see if there are any that get caught in the vaseline.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2011 at 7:22PM
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