Understanding poison ivy
While poison ivy is one of the most widespread plants in the continental US, it’s also one of the least popular. That’s because it contains an oil called urushiol which, when exposed to skin, can cause an uncomfortable rash. The rash, called contact dermatitis, makes skin irritated, inflamed, and, you guessed it, itchy. Poison ivy’s cousins, poison oak and poison sumac, also contain the rash-causing urushiol. Depending on the amount you’re exposed to and your individual reaction, rashes can range from mildly uncomfortable to downright torturous.
Spending time in nature puts you at risk for exposure. While a select few may be immune, the majority of people will have a reaction of some kind. If you do contract a rash, knowing poison ivy symptoms and the proper steps for treatment can help to minimize discomfort.
What does poison ivy look like?
You may be familiar with the rhyme, “Leaves of three, let it be.” This is a good way to identify poison ivy and poison oak, as both plants have groupings of 3 leaves.
- Poison ivy comes in the form of a shrub or a climbing vine with pointed, heart-shaped leaves. It’s green most of the summer but may have a reddish hue in the early spring and fall.
- Poison oak can also come in the form of a shrub or a climbing vine. It’s similar in appearance to poison ivy, but its leaves are rounded instead of pointed. It also will appear green most of the summer, with reddish hues in both early spring and fall.
- Poison sumac can come in the form of a shrub or a tree. Both its trunk and branches are long and slender. The leaves are ovals that end in points and come in groupings of 7-13. While different in appearance from poison ivy and oak, the urushiol it contains will cause the same reaction.
Poison ivy rash symptoms
Poison ivy rash stages will normally progress over the course of 12-48 hours after exposure. Everyone’s reaction is different, but possible signs of poison ivy include:
- Itchy patches of red, inflamed skin
How to prevent poison ivy?
When out in the woods or your backyard, keep on the lookout for poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. The best way to prevent a poison ivy rash is to avoid contact with the broken leaves or stems of these plants. If you spot it, steer clear. If you’re out hiking, consider wearing long socks or pants to avoid brushing up against any of these plants that may turn up on the path. If it’s in your yard, you can safely remove it by wearing protective gloves. But never burn these plants as they can release the urushiol into the smoke which, if breathed in, can irritate your lungs.
While the rash it causes is not in itself contagious, urushiol can remain on surfaces like skin, clothing, or gardening equipment. Washing anything that’s come into contact with poisonous plants is important because this can prevent an outbreak if it is accomplished within 2 hours. Because urushiol is an oil, grease-cutting soap, like dish soap, is effective. So, take stock of where your skin has made contact with any poisonous plants as well as where that skin has touched other skin on your body. Lather up to prevent the misery of poison ivy!
How long does poison ivy last?
Rashes can take 12-48 hours to manifest. Contrary to popular belief, the rash cannot spread through scratching or by entering your bloodstream. The rash will only develop where contact with urushiol has been made.
These rashes generally clear up after 2-3 weeks, though more severe cases may take a month or longer.
How to treat poison ivy
Whatever you do, don’t scratch! This can lead to further inflammation. If you have blisters, scratching can also cause them to pop, putting you at risk for a bacterial infection. It’s not easy, but refraining from scratching will help you to recover sooner.
For mild cases, these rashes can be treated at home:
- Apply calamine lotion to ease itchiness and inflammation
- Apply a mixture of baking soda and water if you don’t have calamine
- Cold compress can provide relief
- An antihistamine can help to reduce itching
Seek medical attention for poison ivy treatment if you encounter any of the following:
- Rash on your face or genitals
- Severe allergic reactions, like difficulty breathing
- Rash symptoms that interrupt sleep
- You aren’t better within a few weeks
If you have a severe reaction to poison ivy, visit your local vybe urgent care. We’re available 7 days a week to help treat your symptoms so that you can feel better soon.