Eight Things You Should Know About Poison Ivy

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

You're may already be quite familiar with the uncomfortable, itchy feeling you have when you have come in contact with poison ivy. However, the following facts about poison ivy rashes may help you better control and cope with a developing rash.

1. Poison ivy rashes, along with those from poison oak and sumac, are caused by sensitivity to the oils found on the leaves of these plants. These oils immediately begin soaking into your skin and the rash appears between 12 and 72 hours after exposure to the oils. It can last up to eight weeks. The length and severity of the rash depends on how much oil is absorbed by your skin.

2. You will often develop a rash after accidentally touching a poison ivy plant. However, the oils from the plant may also rub off on clothing or pets and touching these can result in a rash. Poison ivy oil, called urushiol, can stay on clothing for years, so it is important to wash clothes immediately if you have touched or been exposed to a poison ivy plant.

3. Though it can sometimes seem as if the poison ivy rash is spreading, the rash does not "spread."
It is more likely that your skin absorbed the oils at different rates and so the rash continued to appear over several days. You may also have oils on your clothing or other objects and you touched these oils later so the rash appeared in stages. You should wash the area with soap and water immediately after coming in contact with a plant to avoid spreading the oil to different parts of your body.

4. Poison ivy rashes often appear as a straight line because of how you brushed the plant. However, if you have oil on your hands and rub your skin, pet an animal that has urushiol on their fur or come in contact with clothing with the oil on it, the rash may be more widespread.

5. Scratching the rash does not cause it to spread, but it can cause infection. Germs on your hands and under your fingernails can cause an infection when you scratch, especially when you open the blisters.

6. The poison ivy plant has a trio of bright green leaves on each stem. The leaves turn red in the fall. Many children are taught the saying, "Leaves of three, let it be" to help remind them to stay away from any plant with three leaves on the stem. Wearing protective clothing and gloves when gardening or walking in the woods can help you avoid making contact with the plant. Be sure to wash the clothing after working in the yard or being in wooded areas.

7. Most cases of poison ivy rash can be treated with over-the-counter creams and lotions. Calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream can help cut down on the itchiness. Cold compresses or oatmeal baths can feel soothing. Antihistamines, such as Benadryl, can help if you are having problems sleeping because of discomfort from the rash.

You should contact your doctor if:

  • The rash is severe (covering more than one-quarter of your body) or interfering with your ability to carry out daily activities.

  • The rash is on sensitive areas of your body, such as your eyes, mouth or genitals.

  • The rash looks infected--for example, the blisters are oozing pus.

  • You develop a fever or swollen glands along with the rash.

  • You still have the rash after a few weeks.

  • You have headaches along with the rash.

8. Be careful when getting rid of poison ivy plants from your yard or garden. Use gloves and protective clothing if digging up the plant and place in a plastic bag to throw away as the roots and plant can remain toxic for a long period of time. You can also use commercial herbicides, such as RoundUp. But be careful not to kill other plants you want to keep in your garden. Never burn the plant as inhaling the fumes can cause damage to your lungs.

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.