Poison ivy can threaten spring and summer activities, but it doesn’t have to spoil the great outdoors.

By Shantala Sonnad, MD  |  6/28/2018

Education is the key to preventing the itchy, red rash caused by this leafy nuisance. Should you still come in contact with the waxy, three-leafed plant, read on to find out how to prevent and treat poison ivy.

Everyone should have an idea of what poison ivy looks like. The saying "leaves of three, let them be," might help you remember. This plant usually grows as a vine with reddish and green leaves during the spring.

If you are hiking, avoid any ventures into the woods because it is very likely you will come into contact with poison ivy.  It is advised to always steer clear of any plant with similar characteristics as a precaution.

Treatment following contact

The plant's oil, called urushiol, is what puts the "poison" in poison ivy. The oil can be on the entire plant, even if it is dead, and can still cause an allergic reaction that presents itself as a red, oozy rash that burns and itches.

If you come in contact with any part of the plant, including the leaves, stems and roots, it is important to immediately wash the oil from your skin and clothes with cool water and soap for 10 minutes. This is crucial to limiting the spread of the oil and can greatly decrease your chance of an allergic reaction.

If your sporting equipment, gardening tools or pets have been exposed to the oil, a thorough washing can prevent the spread of poison ivy to others.

There are many over-the-counter treatments that can ease the symptoms of poison ivy. A moderate case of poison ivy can be treated with calamine lotion, topical Benadryl, or Zanfel, all of which are commonly found at any drugstore, and help soothe commonly experienced redness, burning and itch.

It is thought that using bleach, laundry detergent or other home remedies will aid in drying out the rash, but these treatments can do more harm than good, so avoid substances not specifically designed to target poison ivy.

Common myths

Many believe the rash associated with poison ivy is contagious and can be spread via itching. However, neither of these statements are true; only the plant's oil is contagious.

Poison ivy can appear days to weeks later on different parts of the body because, in certain areas, the layers of skin can be more resistant to the oil, so it may not penetrate as quickly, thus taking longer for the reaction to appear.  For example, the rash will appear last on the bottoms of your feet.

Nevertheless, it is still important to avoid scratching as much as possible, as it can increase the chance of skin infection.

When to see a doctor

Individuals with poison ivy on the neck, face, eyes, genitals or who experience unbearable symptoms should seek immediate medical attention. A healthcare provider can prescribe the steroid prednisone, which can dramatically reduce the swelling and severity of the rash, decrease the irritable itch and speed healing.

Enjoy the beautiful summer, and be safe!

Dr. Shantala Sonnad is a board-certified family physician with Health Quest Medical Practice in LaGrangeville, NY. To schedule an appointment, call HQMP-Connect at 1-888-525-HQMP (4767) (TTY: 800-421-1220). Learn more at healthquest.org/primarycare.