'Squash Hands' Is Real: What to Do If You Develop This Mysterious Reaction

<p>Photo Illustration by Lecia Landis for Verywell Health; Getty Images</p>

Photo Illustration by Lecia Landis for Verywell Health; Getty Images

Fact checked by Nick Blackmer

Key Takeaways

  • Raw butternut squash can cause some people to develop an allergic skin reaction called “squash hands.”

  • Wearing gloves while handling the fruit or purchasing prepared butternut squash can help you prevent this skin reaction.

  • A 1% hydrocortisone cream can help alleviate squash hands symptoms.

If you’ve been searching for any fall-inspired recipes lately, chances are you’ve found a few that call for butternut squash, which is currently in season. Before trying recipes with this fruit, it’s good to know that raw butternut squash sometimes causes an allergic reaction that affects the hands—a phenomenon many refer to as “squash hands.”

“While uncommon, butternut squash has been associated with the development of contact dermatitis,” Joshua Zeichner, MD, a dermatologist at the Mount Sinai Hospital, told Verywell. “Contact dermatitis is a rash that develops in the skin as a result of direct contact with an external source,” he explained.

This won’t be something that only happens the first couple of times you’ve handled butternut squash, Zeichner added. “Once you have been sensitized to an external allergen, you will develop the reaction whenever you come in contact with it,” he explained.

If you’ve experienced squash hands in the past but still want to cook with butternut squash this fall and winter, there are ways to avoid this reaction.

Why Does Squash Make My Hands Peel?

Experts don’t know what specific compound in butternut squash causes the reaction, but reports have shown that it occurs after people handle the flesh of the fruit, Zeichner said.

There are two types of contact dermatitis. “The first is an irritant dermatitis where the skin comes in contact with a caustic ingredient that will cause a reaction in everyone given a great enough exposure,” Zeichner said. “The second type of contact dermatitis is an allergic reaction where certain individuals become sensitized to a specific external factor.”

The contact dermatitis caused by butternut squash is this second type of reaction: It affects only the people who are allergic to the unknown compound that triggers the symptoms.

It’s not clear how many people are affected by this. While contact dermatitis due to butternut squash exposure is thought to be uncommon, experts say the reaction could be underreported.

The reaction only affects the area of the body that came into contact with the butternut squash. A case report published in 2022 details the condition of a man who developed contact dermatitis after cooking the fruit. He’d held it with his right hand and peeled it with his left; therefore, only his right hand was affected. He described the subsequent feeling as “tightness”; though he didn’t report any pain, itching, or burning, he did say the reaction was “uncomfortable.”

“There have been reports in the literature of people handling the flesh of the butternut squash [and] developing a dry, flaky reaction of the hands,” Zeichner said.

It’s unclear exactly how long the symptoms of squash hands last, but they won’t necessarily go away overnight. It took a few days for the right hand of the person whose condition was detailed in the case report to return to normal.

How to Prevent Squash Hands

If you’ve experienced squash hands in the past but still enjoy cooking and eating butternut squash, there are a few ways to avoid the irritating symptoms of contact dermatitis.

If you still want to prep the fruit, consider adding a barrier between yourself and the squash. “If you have a reaction when handling butternut squash, the only way to avoid the reaction would be to wear gloves in the future,” Zeichner said.

But it’s also worth considering other forms of the food, Abby Langer, RD, a Toronto-based dietician, told Verywell. People who have had this reaction in the past could benefit from buying pre-cut squash, so they don’t have to touch it, or they could try a canned version. Though canned butternut squash may be a bit of a challenge to find, it’s just as good for you—from a nutritional standpoint—as fresh butternut squash.

“Canned produce is just as healthy as fresh,” Langer said. If you’re unable to find other variations of butternut squash and don’t want to risk contact dermatitis, there are plenty of other seasonal fruits and vegetables to work with this time of year, Langer added, including broccoli, brussels sprouts, apples, pears, persimmons, and pomegranates.

How to Get Rid of Squash Hands

If you start to notice the symptoms of squash hands after handling the fruit, you may be able to treat them from your own home without seeing a healthcare provider, Zeichner said.

“If you develop a reaction, then an over-the-counter topical cortisone cream can be useful,” he explained. Specifically, you’re going to want a 1% hydrocortisone cream. These anti-inflammatory creams are used to treat a variety of skin conditions. If you’re planning to cook with butternut squash in the coming months, picking some up ahead of time could be helpful just to be safe.

If at-home care doesn’t alleviate your symptoms, you’ll need to seek medical treatment. “If an over-the-counter cream is not helping your skin after several days, you should visit a board-certified dermatologist for help,” Zeichner said. A specialist may recommend a prescription cream to ease the symptoms.

It’s important to remember that symptoms of food allergies, in general, should prompt you to seek medical help since they can be life-threatening. These include:

  • Tingling or itching feeling in the mouth

  • Hives

  • Face, tongue, or lip swelling

  • Vomiting or diarrhea

  • Dizziness

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Abdominal cramp

  • Loss of consciousness

These symptoms could signal a more severe food allergy requiring immediate treatment.

What This Means for You

Some people develop uncomfortable symptoms, including flaky skin or skin peeling on the hands, after cooking butternut squash. If this has happened to you in the past, you may want to try wearing gloves before handling the fruit. If you develop the symptoms, you can try using an over-the-counter topical cortisone cream to treat them, but if they don’t go away within a few days, you should make an appointment with a dermatologist.

Read the original article on Verywell Health.