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How Adam Levy’s lime burn became international news

Adam Levy's right hand in happier days (Nate Ryan/MPR)

Last month, Minneapolis singer-songwriter Adam Levy — known for his solo work as well as for playing with the Honeydogs, Liminal Phase, And the Professors, and the Bunny Clogs — suffered severe burns and blistering on his hand due to an unexpected culprit, lime juice.

About three weeks ago on a Monday morning, Levy was enjoying a coffee out in the sun when he looked down at his hand and noticed an odd, red sunburn behind his thumb on the back of his right hand. “It didn’t really feel too bad,” Levy recalled, “it was more the discoloration is what I noticed first and then throughout the day it started getting more intense.”

The day before had been his daughter’s graduation party, so he had spent a good deal of time outside. Levy assumed it might just be a sunburn, but what he couldn’t explain was why only this one part of his hand was red. “I just thought it was so odd,” Levy admitted “because, you know, my sleeves were rolled up and my face was in the sun and I didn’t get any sunburn except on this really localized area.”

Levy said that after noticing the odd mark, he started to think of other things that might have caused this strange reaction — such as accidentally touching the grill — and that was when he remembered the last thing he had done in preparation for the party.

“The last thing that I did was I squeezed about a dozen limes,” Levy explained. “I didn’t even bother to wash my hands because I thought, you known it’s lime juice. What the hell, it can’t be bad for you, right?”

Soon the area started to blister up and by the next morning not only had the blisters and inflammation worsened, but Levy started to have trouble breathing. When he also started to feel dizzy and nauseous and his tongue began to swell up, he decided to go to the emergency room.

At the hospital, Levy was given an IV and antihistamines to counteract the allergic reaction. However, this didn’t stop the blister on his hand from growing. “I walked around with this blister that kept growing every day,” Levy recalled. “By Friday — four or five days into it —I had a blister that, I’m not kidding you, was like the size of a half of a canned peach or a sliced apple.”

So what caused this large blister, which Levy humorously named thumunculus? The doctors diagnosed Levy’s wound as phytophotodermatitis, a toxic reaction to sunlight and citric acid.

According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, phytophotodermatitis is a skin condition that results when the chemicals from certain plants and fruits are triggered by sunlight or other ultraviolet light. Some of the plants that carry these chemicals that can lead to a reaction are wild parsley, wild dill, buttercups, wild parsnips, and citrus fruits — especially limes. In fact, the condition is sometimes called lime disease or margarita rash.

In Levy’s case, the odd discoloration and blisters appeared where the lime juice had touched his hand and then been exposed to the sun. “When I looked at the marks, it’s like it’s exactly where the lime juice would have sort of cascaded over my hands as I was squeezing every last bit out with both hands,” Levy explained. “But of course my right hand got it worse because I use my right hand more than my left.”

Levy says his hand is still a bit discolored, which he expects to last for another few months. However, where the severe burn and blister has almost completely healed up now.

Emergency room. Hives. Serious blistering rash. Breathing issues. Headache. Who'd think squeezing limes 2 days ago for…

Posted by Adam Levy on Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Levy documented the whole ordeal on social media and as a result, his story has gotten quite a bit of media coverage, including making international headlines. To Levy, all the attention he’s received as a result of this blister feels a bit ironic. “I’m a musician,” said Levy. “I spend my life on social media talking about my art and politics, and the thing that pole-vaults me into infamy is a giant blister.”

He has however, been able to get in touch with others who have also experienced phytophotodermatitis as a result of the media attention and has learned that the condition actually isn’t that uncommon. Levy’s started to receive stories and pictures of other people’s experiences, some even asking the musician to diagnose them himself.

As for any impact on his music career, Levy didn’t let thumunculus slow him down and “simply worked around it.” He played one show with the giant blister all wrapped up in a bandanna in order to prevent it from bursting. He eventually had the blister lanced and was back performing the next day.

When it comes to limes, Levy admits he is a bit weary. “I’ll be honest, I’ve been a little bit queasy every time I see one,” he admitted, “but I love citrus so I’m sure in a couple of weeks I’ll probably forget the whole thing.” Levy did say that he will use more caution going forward and will be sure to wash his hands after handling citrus in the summer.

If you’re looking for the next opportunity to see Levy live, he has a few shows coming up this fall. The first is with the Honeydogs at the Prairie Burn Music Festival on Sept. 16. There will also be an Adam Levy residency on Sundays at Icehouse, Oct. 22 – Nov. 12.

Lillian Speakman is a recent graduate from Hamline University.