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, there’s 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.
It’s easy to identify by its clusters of three pointed leaves. In the spring, the leaves can have a reddish tint. They turn green in summer and various shades of red, yellow, or orange in the fall.
How poison ivy spreads
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.
The rash isn’t contagious to others — it’s a skin reaction to the oil. However, the oil itself can be spread to others.
Urushiol is tenacious. It’ll stick to almost anything: your clothes and shoes, camping and gardening equipment, even your pets’ or horses’ coats.
It can transfer to and from your hands to your cell phone or any object you touch and be spread to others. 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.
Here are some ways to prevent getting a poison ivy rash:
If you know you’re heading into a poison ivy stronghold, prepare by covering as much of your skin as possible. Good frontline defenses include:
- long-sleeved shirts
- pants, which can be tucked into socks if needed
- heavy rubber gloves
- closed-toe shoes
Rinsing your skin with hot, soapy water or rubbing alcohol within about an hour of touching poison ivy can 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 into contact with the plant. Urushiol can remain potent for years, so skipping the cleanup could lead to another rash later.
Some people swear that dishwashing liquids can help wash the oil from your skin. Other specialty washes include products by brands such as Burt’s Bees, Ivarest, and Tecnu.
If a preventive measure is what you’re after, over-the-counter creams can delay urushiol from penetrating the skin. You can get IvyBlock and other barrier creams from your local drugstore or online.
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’re exposed, you must wash all the cream off within four hours of the exposure to keep your skin from absorbing the urushiol.
Baths and compresses
If you do develop a poison ivy rash, expect it to take one to three weeks to clear up. Wash well with soap and hot water to get any residual oil off the skin as soon as you can.
Once the rash develops, water can be soothing and help ease itching and burning. Soaking in cool-water baths containing an oatmeal-based product such as one by Aveeno should provide relief, according to the Mayo Clinic. Also, placing a cool, wet compress on the rash for 15 to 30 minutes several times a day should help.
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 include:
- aloe vera gel
- a 3-to-1 baking soda and water paste ratio applied to the skin
- cucumber slices placed on the rash
You can also mash up cucumber into a paste and apply to the rash. Like the oatmeal bath, a mash of warm wet oatmeal applied to the skin can be soothing.
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.
There are numerous other over-the-counter antihistamines. Talk to your pharmacist for advice on choices.
Don’t apply an antihistamine cream to your rash, though. It can actually make the itching worse.
Antihistamines help dry up the rash as well. Applying rubbing alcohol to a rash can also help dry it up and prevent infection. Some other home remedies that act as astringents and can dry up a poison ivy rash include:
- witch hazel
- apple cider vinegar
- a paste of baking soda and water
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 such as 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. The prescription may be for pills, a cream, or both.