Maybe you were gardening without gloves, taking a nature hike, or mowing the lawn. Now, suddenly, you’re experiencing excruciating pain and itching on your hands, arms, legs, or feet. If you aren’t prepared, poison ivy can catch you off guard.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, around 85 percent of the population is allergic to poison ivy, and 1 in 10 has a severe reaction. Every year, nearly 50 million people in the United States suffer an allergic reaction to poison ivy, sumac, or oak.
Learn how to spot the danger, and know what you can do in case poison ivy gets too close.
Poison ivy can be found in every state but Alaska and Hawaii. So there’s a good chance you’ll eventually cross paths with it. Learning how to identify poison ivy may help you avoid this highly irritating plant.
Poison ivy grows as a small shrub in the northern and western United States. It grows as a trailing vine along the ground or clinging to trees in the east, Midwest, and south. The leaves are each made up of three pointed leaf clusters, which have a glossy surface. The edge of the leaflets can be toothed or smooth.
The leaves of the poison ivy plant are green in the summer, but can be red, orange, or yellow in the spring and fall. The plant may flower with greenish-yellow blossoms and produce small, green berries that turn white in the fall.
The sap of the poison ivy plant contains an oil called urushiol. This is the irritant that causes an allergic reaction. You don’t even have to come in direct contact with the plant to have a reaction. The oil can be lingering on your gardening equipment, golf clubs, or even your shoes. Brushing against the plant — or anything that has come in contact with it — can result in skin irritation.
Even if you never saw the offending three-leafed culprit, the resulting rash is hard to ignore. This type of allergic reaction is known as contact dermatitis. It happens when your skin comes in contact with an irritant like urushiol.
Poison ivy exposure can result in thin red lines on the skin if you have brushed against the edge of the leaves directly. If you come in contact with pets that have the oil on their fur or touch clippings when emptying the mower bag, it can cover a larger area.
Classic signs of poison ivy include:
- painful blisters
The rash can take a long time to fully develop, and it may give the illusion of spreading.
An allergic reaction occurs when the oil comes in contact with your skin. Knowing what to look for is only part of the equation when it comes to avoiding the rash. The key is to prevent contact.
Prepare yourself before venturing into places where you might find the plant. This means covering your skin before gardening or doing other outdoor activities. You should also wear eye protection while mowing.
If you can’t cover your body completely, use an ivy blocking cream. There are several varieties that protect your skin from absorbing urushiol. They usually contain an ingredient called bentoquatam. Apply it before going outdoors. Pack a supply of ivy blocking cream to take along with you if you’re hiking or camping.
Carefully clean items that have come in contact with poison ivy to prevent exposure later. Gardening tools, sporting equipment, and camping supplies can all harbor urushiol.
If you’ve gotten a rash despite your best efforts to avoid the plant, there are things you can do. You can usually treat the rash yourself at home. However, you should go to the emergency room right away if you have severe symptoms such as shortness of breath, rash on the face or genitals, or if your rash covers a large area of your body.
Immediately wash skin that has come in contact with the plant. This may help remove some of the oil and lessen the severity of your reaction. Also be sure to wash the clothes you were wearing along with anything that may have touched the plant. Although the rash can’t spread, the oil that caused it can.
Taking an over-the-counter antihistamine such as Benadryl can help relieve itching and allow you to sleep more comfortably. Apply calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream topically to stop the itching.
Take frequent warm baths in water containing an oatmeal product or apply cool wet compresses to help relieve the itch.
There is no cure for poison ivy, but even left untreated, it will eventually clear on its own. A little prevention can go a long way. If you take precautions, you may never discover how uncomfortable the rash can be.