Summer is the best time of the year, but you won’t be able to enjoy it if you don’t steer clear of poison ivy. With increased outdoor activity, your risk for developing poison ivy increases.
Toxicodendron radicans, commonly known as poison ivy, affects more than 350,000 people annually in the U.S. A rash from poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac is caused by an oil found in these plants called urushiol (you-ROO-shee-all). When this oil touches your skin, it often causes an itchy, blistering rash.
The best way to prevent poison ivy is to learn how to identify the plant so you can avoid it. But if you still get poison ivy, there are a slew of products that provide relief.
Is That Poison Ivy?
In most cases, poison ivy can be identified by several characteristics: clusters of three leaflets, alternate leaf arrangement, lack of thorns; and each group of leaflets growing on its own stem, which connects to the main vine.
Dr. Heidi Waldorf, a dermatologist and associate clinical professor at Mount Sinai in New York, told Healthine that the adage, “leaves of three, let them be” is the "classic" characteristic of poison ivy plants, which people should avoid. “You’ll see vines, or clusters,” said Waldorf.
As the child of a dermatologist dad, Waldorf recalled a fifth grade class trip on a nature trail to collect leaves. “I told my teacher they should not make us pick that particular leaf. They did and I refused. My dad ended up treating half the class for varying degrees of poison ivy dermatitis,” said Waldorf.
Please Don’t Touch the Plant's Oil
The key to not getting poison ivy is to not touch the oil from the leaf, Waldorf said, adding, “You don’t want the leaf to be touching your skin. The oil can be passed to you if it is on your dog or your clothing."
Patients with poison ivy often report that they touched the rash and it spread, but Waldorf said the rash does not spread. “It is your reaction to poison ivy. It’s an allergic rash. You get exposed to it and these memory cells in your body recognize it. The cells then go back to your lymph nodes and get the other guys who remember it all geared up. That’s when you get that allergic dermatitis,” said Waldorf.
People often get poison ivy in stages because certain areas will respond first, and others will respond later. “You also respond first where you may have gotten the most of it,” said Waldorf, adding, “The way you or dermatologists know it’s a poison ivy rash, is what we call an outside job. When your body does things, it tends to think in a more symmetric manner. When something comes from the outside, we tend to see it in more of a geometric pattern, based on how we were exposed.”
If you walk by poison ivy and it swipes you, you’ll see a linear distribution. “These lines of little tiny vesicles look like little tiny water bumps and little red bumps, and they are itchy. They may be a line in some areas, and in other areas a larger grouping, depending on how you got it,” explained Waldorf.
No, It’s Not Contagious
People who garden often get poison ivy oil on their hand and they touch their face while the oil is still on their hand. “Poison ivy can cross react with other things. Once the oil is washed off, you are not going to get the rash any more, and if you touch the rash, or someone else touches the rash, it’s not a problem. Anything that’s oozing is your body’s response to it—your body’s inflammatory cells. You can only get poison ivy from the oil,” said Waldorf.
When you return from gardening, Waldorf advises washing with brown gardening soap. She also recommends Tecnu, an over-the-counter wash designed to take the oil off your skin. It's also important to wash your clothing immediately after gardening. In addition, you should wipe down your gardening gloves, or wash your hands with your gardening gloves on, or put the gloves aside. “You want to make sure you are not getting your skin exposed to any of the oil. Once the oil dries, you are not going to get poison ivy,” said Waldorf.
Adults Can Get a Bad Case
Pointing out that whether you get poison ivy, poison sumac, or poison oak depends on where you are in the country, Waldorf said, “It's regional. In New York we have poison ivy. The response is going to be similar. You have to be allergic to it to get the response. Each time you get exposed, it can be worse. That’s why the first time somebody gets exposed, they may actually be fine and see nothing. The second time they get a much bigger reaction. Often, we’ll see the worst reactions in adults, because they have been exposed to it more times over their life. Their body remembers it and they have a more vigorous reaction.”
A first bout of poison ivy can be treated with a one percent hydrocortisone OTC product to reduce the inflammation. Calamine lotion, Burrow’s solution, or Domeboro can help dry the blisters. “Over time, if it is a more aggressive reaction, you generally need a stronger topical steroid, something prescription strength. If it gets worse, you may need oral steroids and you should see a dermatologist. If you scratch, you are more likely to get a super infection. That’s why oral antihistamines and topical steroids help with the itch,” said Waldorf.
Although poison ivy cases increase in late spring and summer, Waldorf cautioned, “If someone is burning a big pile of burning leaves, and burning poison ivy you can get poison ivy (from inhaling the smoke). We also see poison ivy in the fall when people are cleaning up after the summer, and clearing the leaves.”
Get All Dressed Up
If you go camping, Waldorf advised wearing high socks to avoid getting poison ivy on your ankles. It’s also a good idea to wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants. “What frequently happens when people go out and do gardening or hiking is, they wear tank tops or shorts,” said Waldorf.
So, how long does it take for poison ivy to clear up? Waldorf said, “It depends on how aggressive it is. You may start treating one patch, then other patches will begin coming out. You are getting this response. When we treat people, we say it could be one or two weeks to get this cleared up. The goal is to not be super uncomfortable, and that’s where the steroids come in. They reduce the inflammation.”
Noting that some of her patients frequently get poison ivy, Waldorf said, “We make sure they have an appropriate prescription steroid creme at home, so they have it available and they can take it on vacation or camping.”
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends that people who have poison ivy leave blisters alone. If blisters open, the AAD advises, do not remove the overlying skin, as the skin can protect the raw wound underneath and prevent infection. The AAD also advises taking short, lukewarm baths in a colloidal oatmeal preparation, to relieve itching. You can also draw a bath and add one cup of baking soda to the running water. Taking short, cool showers, and applying cool compresses to the itchy skin are also advised.
Oh, What a Relief it Is
If you get poison ivy, you may want to reach for these OTC products.
Tec Labs’s Tecnu Extreme Medicated Poison Ivy Scrub is a medicated scrub that removes the oil and provides anti-itch treatment in one step. Tecnu Original Outdoor Skin Cleanser is a poison ivy wash intended to remove urushiol from poison ivy, oak, and sumac.
Calagel Medicated Anti-itch Gel is intended to provide cooling itch and pain relief for poison ivy and oak rash.
Zanfel Poison Ivy, Oak & Sumac Wash is a topical solution for poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac, that it is designed to remove urushiol from the skin after bonding, enabling the affected area to immediately begin healing. Zanfel states that its product relieves itching and pain usually within 30 seconds.
Burt’s Bees Poison Ivy Soap is a vegetable-based soap featuring kaolin, jewelweed, pine tar, and tea tree oil. It is intended to help quiet your skin after poison ivy strikes.
Hyland offers Poison Ivy / Oak Tablets, a homeopathic formula that is supposed to soothe the pain by stimulating your body’s own healing response.
Blistex is rolling out Ivarest Poison Ivy Cleansing Foam, a product that can be used preventatively. When exposure is known or suspected, treatment with Ivarest Cleansing Foam can begin immediately to prevent an outbreak. If used soon after exposure, the cleanser can also help reduce the severity of an outbreak, according to Blistex.
Chattem is unveiling Cortizone 10 Poison Ivy Relief Pads for poison ivy, oak, and sumac. Chattem says the product immediately cools the irritated skin on contact. Ingredients include aloe, botanicals, and oat extract.
McNeil Consumer Healthcare offers Extra Strength Benadryl Itch Stopping Cream, an antihistamine cream that temporarily relieves pain and itching, and also dries the oozing and weeping, according to McNeil.