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Did California fires bring on cluster of mystery rashes?

Calif. community questions mystery rashes
California community questions if fires caused mystery rashes 01:48

RANCHO CORDOVA, California -- A California community is itching for answers after several neighbors reported getting rashes and what appears to be a bizarre allergic reaction. Many of the incidents happened last weekend in Rancho Cordova at a time when several fires broke out nearby. That made many people wonder if the smoke in the air was causing the irritation.

"My skin was getting tight and swollen and I was constantly itching my neck," Jenni Matamoros told CBS Sacramento.

She took to Facebook with a photo showing the shocking skin rash she got over the weekend just hours after returning home from a barbecue. She was at home watching a movie with her husband with the windows open when she started to feel uncomfortable.

"I just kept itching my chest and I felt really hot. Nothing had been different, so I started asking could it be something in the air with the fires or this weird smell in the area, that's when I did the post. I said it can't be something I ate because I hadn't eaten in hours. So I wondered if anyone else in the area was feeling the same thing, or having these same reactions, and that's when I was completely overwhelmed," she said.

Matamoros was struck by the dozens of comments she got, including from several people who live near her Rancho Cordova neighborhood of Stonecreek and shared photos with similar reactions.

"I was burning, itching, scratching, blisters all over my face, my neck," said Tamara Steinhoff.

Steinhoff said she went for a walk Friday and when she came back to work when she noticed something terribly wrong.

"All of a sudden I started burning, feeling like I was itching, my throat was starting to close, felt like I couldn't breathe," said Steinhoff.

With grass fires popping up in that area over the last few weeks many wondered if poison oak could be a cause.

"Poison oak can travel through the air, the allergens are so strong that they can create an allergic response, but everyone has a different sensitivity," said dermatologist Dr. Emmanuel Maverakis. Maverakis says poison oak reactions typically happen 24 to 48 hours after exposure.

"Poison oak is highly immunogenic so someone with a very mild amount of exposure can get an eruption. The farther you are from the fire, the exposure will be much less," he said.

Maverakis adds, "I don't think it's going to cause a widespread eruption with many patients but absolutely if someone is close to the fire if someone is in contact with poison oak it's absolutely a possibility."

Sacramento Metro Fire says its crews have not been affected. "None of our firefighters are experiencing the symptoms that these neighbors have felt," said Chris Vestal.

Steinhoff's doctor gave her medication and she's taking comfort in the fact that she's not alone.

"He gave me medication and in parenthesis, it says 'reaction to poison oak,'" she said. "I thought I was the only one, and I was kind of glad to see there were other people, so we can see what it was, so it's not just a fluke."

As the exact cause of these rashes is still not determined, Maverakis says sun exposure could also be a factor. He says the best defense if you notice any skin irritation is to wash it off quickly, to apply a cold compress, to avoid additional sun exposure and to speak to a dermatologist.

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