Skin Health

Leaflets 3, Let it Be: What You Should Know about Poison Ivy

Whether you like to work in a garden, hike wooded trails or camp with friends, stay one step ahead of Mother Nature with these tips to avoid and treat poison ivy, which flourishes in the spring and summer.

What is Poison Ivy and Why is it Harmful?

Poison ivy is a plant easily recognized by its characteristic three-leaflet arrangement. It often has a red stem, sometimes produces greenish-white berries and thrives in shaded or wooded areas, such as under trees, along fences or in wood piles.

The plant is coated with an oil, urushiol. For those who come in contact with it and are allergic to the oil, urushiol can cause an irritating rash, says Richard Vonder Brink MD of Montgomery Family Medicine.

Poison Ivy Prevention

“The big thing with poison ivy is an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Dr. Vonder Brink says. “If you see something that looks like the plant, don’t touch it, and if you do, wash off with sudsy, soapy water soon afterward any place that came in contact with it.”

Once the oil is removed from surfaces, it can no longer spread. “You can’t get poison ivy just by touching the rash; that’s a common misconception,” he says.

However, the oil is transferrable from one surface to another, so if you’re gardening and wearing gloves, for example, take care not to touch the exposed surface afterward, Dr. Vonder Brink warns.

For those who know they’re sensitive to poison ivy, he recommends over-the-counter products, such as Ivy Block, that can prevent rashes by keeping oils from sticking to or penetrating skin.

Poison Ivy Symptoms and Treatment

Exposure to poison ivy oils usually causes a red, itchy rash with fluid-filled blisters that develop within two to four days and last about 10 to 14 days, if untreated.

Mild cases can be treated with several over-the-counter options:

If there’s no sign of improvement within 24 to 48 hours, or if the rash is concentrated to the face and hands, Dr. Vonder Brink says it’s time to see a doctor for a prescribed topical treatment or oral steroid.

“You don’t want it in really visible areas where it can cause scarring,” he says. “It can also get in the eyes, and that can be trouble.”

In rare cases, when a person has inhaled urushiol – from burning poison ivy plants – he or she could develop an irritation in the lungs that makes it difficult to breathe. If that happens, Dr. Vonder Brink says you should see a doctor or go to an emergency room immediately.

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Last Updated: May 12, 2015