Poison Ivy & Other Poisonous Plants

7 out of 10 people are allergic to poison ivy, making this the world’s most common allergy. People who have the allergy are sensitive to an irritating resin that’s found in poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac.   
A rash from poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac is caused by an oil (resin) found in these plants called urushiol (you-ROO-shee-all). When this oil touches your skin, it often causes an itchy, blistering rash.

See a Doctor

Most people can safely treat the rash at home. However, if you experience any of the following symptoms, go to the emergency room right away. 

If you have any of the following, go to the emergency room right away:

  • You have trouble breathing or swallowing
  • The rash covers most of your body
  • You have many rashes or blisters
  • You have a temperature over 100 F
  • If the rash spreads to your eyes, mouth, genital area, or covers more than one-fourth of your skin area
  • You experience swelling, especially if an eyelid swells shut
  • Much of your skin itches, or nothing seems to ease the itch
  • If the itching keeps you awake at night

Tips for Treatment

If you do not have the above symptoms, the rash appears on a small section of your skin, and you are absolutely certain that your rash is due to poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac, you may be able to treat the rash at home. To treat a rash from poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac and help stop the itch, the following recommended:

  1. Immediately rinse your skin with lukewarm, soapy water. If you can rinse your skin immediately after touching poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac, you may be able to rinse off some of the oil. 
  2. Wash your clothing. Thoroughly wash all of the clothes you were wearing when you came into contact with the poisonous plant. The oil can stick to clothing, and if it touches your skin, it can cause another rash.
  3. Wash everything that may have the oil on its surface. Besides clothing, the oil from poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac can stick to many surfaces, including gardening tools, golf clubs, leashes and even a pet’s fur. Be sure to wash your pet’s fur, and wash tools and other objects with warm, soapy water (this is also discussed in “Tips for Prevention.”
  4. Take short, lukewarm baths. To ease the itch, take short, lukewarm baths in a colloidal oatmeal preparation, which you can buy at your local drugstore. You can also draw a bath and add one cup of baking soda to the running water. Taking short, cool showers may also help.
  5. Apply cool compresses to the itchy skin. You can make a cool compress by wetting a clean washcloth with cold water and wringing it out so that it does not drip. Then, apply the cool cloth to the itchy skin.
  6. Leave blisters alone. If blisters open, do not remove the overlying skin, as the skin can protect the raw wound underneath and prevent infection.
  7. Try not scratch, as scratching can cause an infection.

Other Home Remedies include:

  • Moisten a plain old tea bag (black or green, it doesn’t matter) and apply it to the itchy skin. The tannic acid in tea, which is astringent, helps contract inflamed tissue and relieve the itching.
  • Dab calamine lotion onto the rash. This classic poison ivy remedy relieves itch and will help dry up blisters. If you find the lotion too runny, just mix in a little cornstarch.
  • Using a cotton ball, treat your rash with witch hazel, which has a great reputation as a skin soother. The kind that comes in an alcohol solution cools your skin as it evaporates.
  • Use a vinegar compress to dry the rash and relieve itching. Mix a half-cup white vinegar with 1-1/2 cups water. Chill in the refrigerator. When you need cool relief, moisten a cloth in the solution and press it onto the rash.

Remember: If your rash is not improving after 5-7 days, or you think your rash may be infected, seek medical treatment. A healthcare professional can treat your rash and any infection and help relieve the itch.

Tips for Prevention 

Learn what poison ivy, oak, and sumac plants look like so you can avoid them. The following explains how you can identify these plants so you can avoid these plants. But, keep in mind that the appearance of each of these plants can vary considerably from region to region and with the seasons. 

What poison ivy looks like:  

 

  • Each leaf has 3 small leaflets.
  • It grows as a shrub (low woody plant) in the far Northern and Western United States, Canada, and around the Great Lakes.
  • It grows as a vine in the East, Midwest, and South of the United States.
  • In spring, it grows yellow-green flowers.
  • It may have green berries that turn off-white in early fall.

What poison oak looks like: 

 

  • Each leaf has 3 small leaflets.
  • It most often grows as a shrub.
  • It can grow as a vine in the Western United States.
  • It may have yellow-white berries.

What poison sumac looks like: 

 

  • It has 7 to 13 leaflets per leaf stem. The leaves have smooth edges and pointed tips.
  • It grows as a tall shrub or small tree in bogs or swamps in Northeast, Midwest, and parts of the Southeast. 
  • Leaves are orange in spring, green in summer, and yellow, orange, or red in fall. 
  • It may have yellow-greenish flowers and whitish green fruits (berries) that hang in loose clusters.

Other Tips for Prevention:

  • Wash your garden tools and gloves regularly. If you think you may be working around poison ivy, wear long sleeves, long pants tucked into boots, and impermeable gloves.
  • Wash your pet if it may have brushed up against poison ivy, oak, or sumac. Use pet shampoo and water while wearing rubber gloves, such as dishwashing gloves. Most pets are not sensitive to poison ivy, but the oil can stick to their fur and cause a reaction in someone who pets them.

Learn more at familydoctor.org

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