Take the Irritation out of Poison Ivy

By Sue Marquardt, RN March 27, 2017

Enjoying the outdoors can become a lot less fun if you run into poison ivy. Do you know what it looks like and how to treat it?

poison ivy, sumac, and oak

When I was young, we lived in the country in an old farmhouse with a big, hilly yard. Our yard was perfect for playing in except for one problem: In a section along the road covering about a 7-by-2 foot strip, grew those familiar, almost cute-looking, three- leaved weeds. Yes, it was the formidable poison ivy.

We were told to stay away from the treacherous plants, but of course we didn’t. Surprisingly none of my family ever got a rash from it…ever. We never knew why. Call it dumb luck I guess because my visiting cousins would get it after a few days of playing hide-and-seek in the dark. Yikes! They would always leave our house itching and scratching.

Sometimes people can have or develop an immunity to poison ivy, but don’t count on it! Remember Murphy’s Law? Better to error on the side of caution with this little weed.

What is poison ivy?
Poison ivy often grows in patches, but it can also be scattered. It has three leaves with jagged or smooth edges, some shiny and some not, with colors varying from green to red. It can grow in wooded areas, fields, yards –everywhere its seed gets spread. Familiarize yourself with it so you can watch out for it and avoid contact.

It is the oily resin urushiol from these plants that causes the irritation on your skin, which can show up 12 hours to two days after exposure. Many times the blister-like rash appears in a line, just the way you rubbed past the plant. It may also appear in clusters or patches.

Your skin doesn’t need direct contact with the plant to develop a rash. Your dog may run through poison ivy, and even though he/she won’t get a rash, it will have the resin in its fur and you will pick it up when you pet him/her. If the resin gets on your clothing, shoes or anything else you are carrying, you can transfer it to your skin by touching these items. Inhaled smoke from a burning patch of poison ivy can transmit the resin to nasal and mucous membranes in your eyes and nose.

What happens when you get the poison ivy rash?
The blister-like rash burns and itches. When you scratch and break the blisters, they will weep but this DOES NOT spread the rash.  It is only the contact with the oil that spreads it. However when you scratch, the bacteria under your nails can infect these blisters.

Remedies
If you find yourself itching and scratching with poison ivy, here are a few home remedies:

  • Heat always makes a rash worse, so try cool compresses
  • Soak in a tepid bath with baking soda, oatmeal or Aveeno bath products
  • Use calamine lotion or 1 percent hydrocortisone cream to minimize the itching
  • Oral Benadryl will also control itching, check with your doctor or pharmacist to OK it with your other medications

Normally this rash will go away in two to four weeks using your home care measures. But you may need to see a doctor for these reasons:

  • If the rash is on your face, eyes or genitals
  • If there are any signs of infection like increasing redness, pus-like drainage, fever, swelling or red streaks
  • If there is no improvement in the rash in spite of your home care

So, get acquainted with these plants so you can avoid a very inconvenient rash that can mess up your summer plans!