I Got Second Degree Burns From Lime Juice

Yeah, that can happen.
Publish date:
August 8, 2013
vacation, crazy, chemical burns, injuries

It’s not like I wasn’t warned.

When I arrived in The Bahamas, my native friends were careful to pass along survival advice to an uninformed Ohioan.

“Don’t wear shiny jewelry in the water, it attracts barracudas.”

“Don’t go to the shanty town at night.”

“Don’t drink more than three ‘Nippers.’”

I was also repeatedly warned about the dangers of what the locals call, “lime burn,” though the medical term is phytophotodermatitis. Another name for it is margarita burn, which incorrectly sounds fun.

Phytophotodermatitis occurs when material from a light-sensitizing plant, in this case, lime juice, gets on the skin and then is exposed to sunlight. Exposure to the sun starts a chemical reaction between the UV rays, plant juice, and skin, which results in nasty burns. Other plants that can cause phytophotodermatitis include parsnips, celery, and lemons. At least I didn’t get a parsnip burn, that sounds much less glamorous.

Lime burns can be of varying severity, from a rash to a second degree burn. Guess what this lucky winner got? My burns were second degree because I was slightly reckless. The day I was burned, I was taking antibiotics for an infected coral cut. An inconvenient side effect of the medication was increased light sensitivity. It was either sunburn or sepsis at that point. I tried to compensate by slathering on sunscreen, but the medication still made my skin overreact to the lime burn. That Caribbean sun don’t play.

Another factor in the severity of my burn was that I was nearly soaked in lime juice. I had squeezed two bags of limes to make conch salad, a traditional Bahamian dish. Since I hadn’t contributed by diving down 27 feet to snatch conch off the ocean floor, I cheerfully complied with my friend’s request to, “Squeeze some sour on der, bey.”

After I was done, I tried to be a responsible risk taker and soaped up with Joy in order to wash the juice off.

In a cruel twist of fate, the Joy was lemon-lime scented.

The next day, I noticed my left fingers appeared to have a rosy blush, as did my left lower back. However, most of my body had a rosy blush because I was sunburnt, so this didn’t alarm me.

My seemingly mild burn quickly grew worse. When I awoke the next morning, it felt as though someone had shaved the skin off of my left side and hand. I ran to the mirror. And when I saw my reflection, I laughed the hysterical laugh of the badly blistered.

There was a precise outline of my fingers in violent, raised burns on my left side. My three middle fingers were imprinted on my back, accompanied by a cute little thumb print on my stomach. Apparently I had unknowingly adopted my signature sassy stance, left hand on hip, while my fingers were drenched in lime.

It looked like a sadistic toddler had finger painted my body with acid.

I went to the Island Pharmacy, because having blisters on my tender stomach was uniquely painful. The pharmacist said the words I was dreading:

“Well, girl, there’s no magic cure.”

All I could do was apply hydrocortisone cream and take off-brand Bahamian benadryl. I was instructed not to bandage the blisters, and to avoid the sun.

The pharmacist also had a good laugh at my expense when I explained how the burns were configured. Though my injury was admittedly hilarious, the numerous blisters, constant fiery pain, and inability to move my fingers detracted somewhat from my amusement. Things also took an interesting turn with the off-brand benadryl, as whenever I took it I became loopy and obsessively composed songs about the objects around me to the tune of the spiderman theme song. My best was probably, “Hummus man! Hummus man! Does whatever a chickpea can!”

It was an interesting time in my life.

Despite the pain, the burn thankfully did not result in a pathological fear of limes, which are as ubiquitous as tourists wearing Guy Harvey shirts in The Bahamas. I jumped right back on that culinary horse. My dinner tonight was grilled fish with three limes squeezed over it, salad with lime dressing, and homemade key lime pie. I might be overcompensating.

I’ll probably always have a reminder of my foolhardy adventure with citrus. Lime burns take a long time to heal. The wounds will develop into brown marks that will stay on my skin for six months to a year, and then, if I’m lucky, they’ll fade away. If they don’t, I’ll have about seven inches of scarred tissue because of a fruit. I think I’ll play it off as a shark bite.