What is Poison Ivy?

Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac are the most common plants that cause an allergic skin rash that is often referred to as “poison ivy.” Urushiol, an oil contained on the plant’s leaves and in its sap, causes the rash, which is usually accompanied by small blisters and severe itching.

You can get poison ivy by:

  • touching poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac plants;
  • touching clothing or shoes that have the plant’s sap on them;
  • touching or playing with pets that have sap on their fur; or
  • coming in contact with smoke when these plants are burned.
The poison ivy rash is not contagious.  If the rash seems to be spreading, this is most likely because the newly affected areas were exposed to a smaller amount of the plant’s sap or the areas were exposed at a later time, perhaps by clothing carrying the sap.

How Do I Treat Poison Ivy?

A reaction to poison ivy, oak or sumac usually occurs within 12 to 48 hours of exposure and can last up to 8 weeks. The severity of the rash depends on how much of the sap gets on your skin. Mild cases of poison ivycan be treated with home remedies, such as:

  • Oral antihistamines, such as Zyrtec or Benadryl;
  • Calamine lotion;
  • 1% hydrocortisone OTC
  • Cool, wet compresses on the affected area; and
  • Cool water soaks with colloidal oatmeal (Aveeno) or baking soda.
If the rash does not respond to the above treatments, you should see a physician. The doctor may prescribe a prescription-strength steroid cream or oral corticosteroids. If the rash has become infected by scratching, the physician may also prescribe antibiotics.

How Do I Avoid Contracting Poison Ivy?

The best way to keep from getting poison ivy is to take some precautions:

  • Know what to look for when you are working with shrubbery, clearing brush or walking in the woods. Poison ivy and poison oak have three leaves originating from the same place on a branch. Remember, “Leaves of three, let them be.” Poison sumac has 6-14 leaves on a branch—one leaf at the end of the branch with the others in two rows opposite each other.
  • Avoid direct contact with plants and vegetation. If this isn't possible, wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, socks and work gloves to avoid getting sap on the skin. Make sure you wash your clothing at the end of the day.
  • If exposure is expected, over-the-counter products such as Ivy Block may be applied to the skin to prevent the urshiol oil from attaching to the skin.

If you think you have been exposed to poison ivy, oak or sumac, wash your skin thoroughly with degreasing soap and water as soon as possible. Sporting goods and outdoor equipment stores also sell specialty soaps that wash the remnants of poison ivy from skin and clothing.

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