treating poison ivy

How to treat poison ivy?

Written by: Ayesha Khan, MBBS

In a Nutshell

  • Poison ivy is a toxic plant that upon exposure causes symptoms of allergy (itching, rash, and blistering)
  • Symptoms can be reduced by washing off the oils from the skin after exposure
  • Treatment involves steroids, antihistamines, and calamine lotion

What is Poison Ivy?

Poison ivy is a poisonous plant that secretes a toxic oil that tend to stick to skin or clothing. Once the oil (also known as urushiol) comes in contact with skin, affected person develop symptoms of rash (also known as contact dermatitis). Rash may be mild or severe and may even appear 1-2 days after the initial contact. Other symptoms are:

- Swelling or redness of skin

- Appearance of blisters that may be painful or itchy

Treatment is mainly supportive with antihistamine, steroid or calamine lotion.

Simple Treatment Regimen

Poison Ivy rash can be managed at home if it is limited to only a small section of skin

The treatment regimen is mainly supportive and follow these steps:

  1. Immediately wash the affected area of poison ivy contact with soap and water: Rinse or wash the affected area of contact with soap and water to wash off the oils from the skin as soon as possible. Any delay in washing off the oil may lead to spread to other parts of body or even to other individuals via contact.
  2. Wash/ Change your Clothes: Immediately take off and then wash your clothing you were wearing when you came in contact with Poison ivy plant. This is because oil stays on the clothing and may cause another rash if clothing touches another part of skin.
  3. Wear gloves: When dealing with poison ivy on clothing or on skin, make sure to wear gloves to avoid getting in contact with the poisonous oils from the plant.
  4. Wash / Rinse everything that may have came in contact with the Plant: Poison ivy oil tend to stick to the surfaces that comes in contact with the plant. This includes gardening tools, equipment etc.
  5. Avoid scratching/ rubbing the inflamed skin: If you have developed lesions or blisters after poison ivy contact, do not rub or scratch the inflamed skin.

Tips to alleviate itching

  1. Take warm baths with colloidal oatmeal: Take bath with lukewarm water to ease itching with colloidal oatmeal preparation or a bath water prepared with 1 tsp baking soda. You can also take cool showers to ease itching.
  2. Use hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion: Pain, itching or discomfort can also be relieved with calamine lotion or hydrocortisone creams that can be applied as frequently as you like.
  3. Apply cold compresses: If your skin is itchy or irritable, apply cold compresses every 2-4 hours for 15 minutes to relieve irritation.
  4. Use antihistamine to alleviate symptoms: Antihistamine pills are also helpful at reducing the signs and symptoms of allergy/ rash.

Nuances/ Safety

Speak to a healthcare provider on emergent basis if you experience any of the following symptoms:

- Difficulty swallowing or breathing

- Rash at or around your genitalia, face, or eyes

- Sever itching or swelling

- Fever

- Rash that has spread to your body

- If symptoms don’t improve within 7-10 days after initial contact with poison ivy

Strength of Evidence:B
These are best practices per recommendations by American Academy of Dermatology Association and FDA. Supportive treatment varies depending on the severity of symptoms.

Our Ruling:

A lot of people in US are allergic to poison ivy. The best way to avoid the infection is to identify how the plant looks and maintain your distance. In addition, always wear gloves/ protective clothing when you are outdoors or gardening. Once exposed, immediately wash your skin with soap and water to remove oil.

Our Sources:

  1. American Academy of Dermatology - Poison ivy rash treatment
  2. Medline Plus - Poison ivy guide
  3. FDA Update - Poison Ivy
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