Prevention and Protection: Everything You Need To Know About Poison Ivy

A guide to avoiding, treating and recognizing poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac

Flickr/Nicole Castle

Summer season is upon us, where we spend more time outside basking in the sun, wandering through the wilderness, and hanging out in our backyards. Spending extra time outside comes with some risks. We’ve discussed the pesky bugs that continue to annoy us through the season, and ways to prevent mosquitoes at home and out hiking. But there is more than just pests to worry about.

Poison Ivy. You’ve either gotten it before, or know of someone who has. It is a common plant that induces rashes and reactions that can easily ruin the enjoyable summer months. So, to keep you outside soaking up that fresh air and beautiful blue sky, knowing what poison ivy and poison oak is, how to prevent it, and how to treat it are important pieces of information.

Related: How to Protect Yourself From Ticks

We discussed poison ivy and poison oak with Dr. Fayne L Frey, founder of Fryface, LLC; Dr Matthew Doppelt, dermatologist at Southeastern Dermatology Consultants; Dr. Joe Matusic, a pediatrician in Charleston, W.Va. and assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at the Charleston division of the West Virginia University School of Medicine, and Dr. David Bank, Founder & Director of The Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic and Laser surgery to find out more about the reactions they cause and what we need to know to treat and prevent.

1. What is Poison Ivy?

Poison Ivy is a climbing plant of the cashew family found in North America. It secretes an oil from its leaves that creates irritation and can cause dermatitis. The rash induced by Poison Ivy is formally know as rhus dermatitis. It is caused from an allergic reaction to the oil secreted. This oil, urushiol is found in the leaves, stems and roots of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac.

The rash typically appears within 48 hours of exposure. Dr. Fayne L Frey explains, “The classical rash is a red blistering eruption seen in straight lines due to the way the plant brushes against the skin. If contact to the resin is a result of touching a piece of clothing, or from touching a pet that has been romping through the woods, the rash may appear more spread out.” When the oil resin is on your skin it can easily spread to other parts of your body by scratching. Once the rash has developed, it can not be transmitted to another person. Also, inhaling smoke from burning any of these poisonous plants may even cause dangerous irritation to the nasal passages and lungs.

2. How do you treat Poison Ivy?

If you catch the poison ivy early you may be able to prevent the rash from ever starting. Dr. Matthew Doppelt adds, “There is a sticky resin on the poison ivy plant which is responsible for the eruption.  If this can be washed off with soap and water within 5 minutes of the exposure, may prevent the eruption.” Dr. Frey also insists that you should wash anything that may have come in contact with the plant, including clothing, patio furniture, garden tools, golf clubs, and even the fur of your pet. If you don’t clean products, such as clothing, the rash can develop again when you come in contact.

If the rash has spread, treating poison ivy is very important, since the rash will consist for 2 to 3 weeks. Here are a few treatment options.

a. Over-the-counter cortisone creams. Dr. Matthew Doppelt explains that using over-the-counter remedies are good if you catch the rash early, “OTC remedies may be enough for a mild case.  For moderate and severe cases prescription topical steroids and oral steroids may be necessary.”

b. Cool Milk. “You can alleviate the symptoms from poison ivy such as severe itching by dipping a washcloth in cool milk and placing it over the rash to soothe the itch and inflammation,” adds Dr. David Bank.

c. Epsom salt. There are many ways to use Epsom salt to help reduce itching. Soak a washcloth in water mixed with the salt, or create a paste by using a teaspoon of Epsom salt with a cup of hot water, then chill the solution for 20 minutes. Or you can create a Epsom salt bath by adding two cups of the salt to bath water and soaking for at least 12 minutes. "Basically, anything that itches or burns the skin, Epsom salt can soothe," says Dr. Joe Matusic. "It's inexpensive, it's readily available and it's an old-time remedy that works."

If the itching continues, it could lead to infection. Prevent excessive itching and visit a dermatologist if it continues. If the rash is severe or widespread, affects the face or genitals and blisters are oozing you should immediately seek medical attention.

3. How to avoid Poison Ivy

The best way to prevent poison ivy, is to avoid the plant entirely. Recognizing the plant can sometimes be difficult, but remember, “Leaves of three, let it be,” Dr. Doppelt reiterates.

Wearing longer sleeves or high socks can also help you from exposing the plant to your skin. There are skin-care products out there such as ivy block barriers that help in preventing the skin from absorbing the oil.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, Poison ivy grows as a shrub in Northern and Western U.S. and around the Great Lakes. In the East, Midwest, and South of the U.S. it grows as a vine. There are yellow-green flowers growing off of it in spring and sometimes has green berries that change to off-white in early fall.

Poison Oak on the other hand often grows as a shrub, and may have yellow-white berries.

Poison Sumac is a bit different, growing in a row of paired leaflets in a tall shrub form or small tree. It is found often in standing water or swampy areas. It usually looks as if there are blotches of black paint on it and may have yellow-white berries.

Enjoy your time outdoors and be aware of the plants that are dangerous to your skin. 


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