Poison Ivy

What Is Poison Ivy?

Poison ivy is a North American plant in the cashew and pistachio family, with a scientific name of Toxicodendron radicans. It is a climbing shrub rather than a true ivy, common in human environments, and noted for its light- to dark-green leaves grouped in threes. Poison ivy is the source of a potentially painful skin rash in persons who handle it or anything with which the plant has come into contact. An estimated 85 percent of all Americans are susceptible to poison ivy rash. Two other North American plants, poison oak and poison sumac, pose a similar health risk.

A typical rash lasts two to three weeks. There is no medical cure but there are several steps you can take at home to reduce or control symptoms. Individuals suffering severe reactions can seek relief at the nearest Baptist Health Urgent Care location.

What Causes a Poison Ivy Rash?

Poison ivy rash is a form of contact dermatitis – an allergic reaction to a skin irritant. The allergen is an oily secretion called urushiol (pronounced u-ROO-shee-ol). The oil is present throughout the plant, including the leaves, stems, roots, and flowers, which means that contact with any of these can generate a rash. A reaction can even be triggered by breathing in smoke from a burning poison ivy plant.

It is also possible to develop a rash through second-hand contact. Be especially careful when handling anything that might have been in a poison ivy-friendly environment, including:

  • Shoes
  • Clothing
  • Gardening tools
  • Hiking equipment
  • Camping, hunting, or fishing gear
  • Lawncare equipment
  • Household pets

The rash itself is not contagious. It won’t spread beyond the area of contact, or to other people, even if you develop oozing blisters.

How Do I Know If I Have a Poison Ivy Rash?

The symptoms of poison ivy rash include:

  • Red bumps, patches, or lines
  • Swelling
  • Itchiness
  • Blisters
  • Difficulty breathing, if urushiol is inhaled with smoke

The rash usually breaks out a day or two after contact.

How Is a Poison Ivy Rash Treated?

Rashes clear up on their own so dealing with them chiefly requires patience. However, there are some home-care options for treating poison ivy symptoms.

How to Treat Poison Ivy Rash

  • Remove clothes and bathe or shower immediately after coming into contact with poison ivy
  • Apply calamine lotion to infected areas to reduce itchiness
  • Itchiness is also reduced by taking an over-the-counter corticosteroid medication
  • Oral antihistamines decrease inflammation
  • Wet compresses or cold-water baths cool the region of infection
  • Soaking in an oatmeal-based bath product might also prove effective

When to See a Doctor

You should your physician if:

  • Your reaction is severe or prolonged (lasting more than three weeks)
  • You run a fever
  • You develop oozing blisters
  • Your reaction affects your mouth, eyes, or genitals
  • Your breathing is labored from inhaling the smoke of a burning poison ivy plant

How Do I Prevent Poison Ivy Rash?

There are several keys to preventing the outbreak of a poison ivy rash:

  • No touching, no trouble: Learn to recognize the plant and avoid it. Since poison ivy looks like other, less harmful forest plants, keep these mnemonics in mind: “Leaves of three, let it be” and “Hairy vine, no friend of mine.”
  • Cover up: Wear protective clothing whenever you might be in the plant’s presence.
  • Wear a barrier cream: Purchase a topical ointment at your drugstore to place another layer of protection between you and urushiol.
  • Wash your skin thoroughly after possible contact: Showering or bathing within 30 minutes of touching poison ivy can remove the allergenic oil and reduce the likelihood of a reaction.
  • Wash anything that comes into contact with the plant: This includes your pets, as well as your tools and clothing.

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