It starts innocently enough. You chop down a scraggly shrub while trimming your lawn. Then, your arms and legs start tingling and turn red. Before you know it they're covered with an itchy rash. Much too late you realize that shrub was actually poison ivy.
Finding poison ivy is easy in the United States, where it grows virtually everywhere except for Alaska, Hawaii, and some desert areas of the southwest. It also grows in parts of Canada, Mexico, and Asia.
In the northern and western parts of the United States and Canada, poison ivy usually grows as a shrub. In the East, Midwest, and South, it usually appears as a vine. It's generally found on the edges of woods, fields, beaches, and streams, but can turn up almost anywhere — even in a park or your flowerbeds.
Look, but don’t touch
"Leaflets three, let it be" is catchy and sound advice — poison ivy is easy to identify by its clusters of three pointed leaves. Usually the middle leaf is on a longer stalk than the two side leaves. Leaves can range from about a third of an inch to more than three inches long, and can have smooth edges or be serrated like a knife.
In the spring poison ivy leaves can have a reddish tint. The leaves turn green in summer and various shades of red, yellow, or orange in the fall.
A real people-plant
You have good reason to be jealous of your pets — not only are they spoiled, but they’ll never get a poison ivy rash. Only humans are susceptible to it. Poison ivy produces an oil called urushiol that causes a rash in about 85 percent of people who come in contact with it, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
Urushiol is tenacious. It'll stick to almost everything — your clothes and shoes, camping and gardening equipment, even your pets' or horses' coats. And it's in virtually every part of the plant; leaves, stems, even the roots. Brushing against a winter-bared vine can still cause a nasty rash.
Rash remedies and preventative measures
1. Dress for success
If you know you're heading into a poison ivy stronghold, prepare by covering as much of your skin as possible. Long-sleeved shirts, pants (tucked into socks if needed), hats, heavy rubber gloves, socks, and closed-toe shoes make good frontline defenses.
2. Lather, rinse, repeat
Rinsing your skin with cool, soapy water or rubbing alcohol within about an hour of touching poison ivy may remove the urushiol and help you avoid a rash — or at least make it less severe.
You'll also need to wash anything else that's come in contact with the plant. Urushiol can remain potent for years, so skipping the cleanup could lead to another rash later.
Some swear that dishwashing liquids can help wash the oil from your skin. Other specialty washes are produced by brands like Burt's Bees, Ivarest, and Tecnu.
3. Block the oil
If a preventative measure is what you’re after, several over-the-counter creams can delay urushiol from penetrating the skin, like Ivy Block, Stokoguard Outdoor Cream, Hollister Moisture Barrier, and Hydropel Moisture Barrier. The cream needs to be thickly applied all over your skin less than an hour before you expect to be exposed to a poison ivy plant. If you are exposed, you must wash all the cream off within four hours of the exposure to keep your skin from absorbing the urushiol.
4. Water is your friend
If you do develop a poison ivy rash, expect it to take one to three weeks to clear up. Water can help ease the itching and burning. Soaking in cool-water baths containing an oatmeal-based product such as Aveeno should provide relief. Also, placing a cool, wet compresses on the rash for 15 to 30 minutes several times a day should help.
5. Cortisone and Calamine
Over-the-counter cortisone creams and calamine lotion can help ease some of the itchiness of a poison ivy rash. Follow the label directions when applying. Make sure to wash and dry the area before reapplying.
Other products that may help with itching are aloe vera gel, a three-to-one baking soda/water paste applied to the skin, or cucumber slices placed on the rash. You can also mash up cucumber into a paste and apply to the rash.
6. Try oral antihistamines
Over-the-counter antihistamines such as loratadine (Claritin) and diphenhydramine (Benadryl) can help ease your itching and inflammation too. Benadryl has the added benefit of making some people sleepy, which could help boost your comfort at bedtime.
Do not apply an antihistamine cream to your rash, though. It can actually make the itching worse.
7. Call in the professionals
If your rash is widespread, on your face or genitals, or has caused lots of blisters, you may want to contact your doctor. They’ll be able to prescribe a steroid, such as prednisone, to help ease the itching and inflammation.
Depending on your condition and your doctor's preference, you may be given steroid pills, a shot, or topical preparations like gels, ointments, or creams.
Sometimes if you scratch your skin or your blisters break open, you can develop a bacterial infection. Your doctor can give you a prescription antibiotic if that happens.
8. Head for help
If you have any of the following symptoms head to the emergency room or urgent care center:
- Trouble breathing or swallowing
- Swelling, especially an eye swelling shut
- Rash near or in your mouth