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Poison Ivy

Medically reviewed by Last updated on May 2, 2022.

What is poison ivy?

Poison ivy is a plant that can cause an itchy, uncomfortable rash on your skin. Poison ivy grows as a shrub or vine in woods, fields, and areas of thick underbrush. It has 3 bright green leaves on each stem that turn red in autumn.

What causes a poison ivy rash?

A poison ivy rash can occur when the plant oil soaks into your skin. You may get a rash if you touch:

  • Any part of the poison ivy plant: This includes the leaves, stem, vine, roots, flowers, and berries.
  • Pets with poison ivy on their fur: They can spread poison ivy oil to your skin and to items inside your car and house.
  • Items with poison ivy oil on them: This includes clothing, shoes, camping or sports equipment, or outdoor tools.
  • A person with poison ivy oil on him: Poison ivy oil may be on their skin or clothing.

What can I do if I have been exposed to poison ivy?

If you think you have touched poison ivy, rinse your skin with cool water right away. Then, wash it with soap and water. Rinse your skin well. Do not use hot water because it may cause the oil to spread on your skin. You may also put rubbing alcohol or a solution of 1/2 alcohol and 1/2 water on your skin. This may help your rash to be less severe when it breaks out on your skin.

What are the signs and symptoms of a poison ivy rash?

  • A red, swollen, itchy rash that develops within hours to days of exposure to poison ivy
  • A rash that appears in thick patches or thin lines where the plant leaves rubbed against your skin
  • Blisters that may leak clear to yellow liquid, then crust over and become scaly

How is a poison ivy rash treated?

  • Antiseptic or drying creams or ointments: Your healthcare provider may recommend medicine to dry out the rash and decrease the itching. These products may be available without a doctor's order.
  • Steroids: This medicine helps decrease itching and inflammation. It can be given as a cream to apply to your skin or as a pill.
  • Antihistamines: This medicine may help decrease itching and help you sleep. It is available without a doctor's order.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

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How can I manage my symptoms?

  • Keep your rash clean and dry: Wash it with soap and water. Gently pat it dry with a clean towel.
  • Try not to scratch or rub your rash: This can cause your skin to become infected.
  • Use a compress on your rash: Dip a clean washcloth in cool water. Wring it out and place it on your rash. Leave the washcloth on your skin for 15 minutes. Do this at least 3 times per day.
  • Take a cornstarch or oatmeal bath: If your rash is too large to cover with wet washcloths, take 3 or 4 cornstarch baths daily. Mix 1 pound of cornstarch with a little water to make a paste. Add the paste to a tub full of water and mix well. You may also use colloidal oatmeal in the bath water. Use lukewarm water. Avoid hot water because it may cause your itching to increase.

Can a poison ivy rash be spread by scratching or touching it?

You cannot spread poison ivy by touching your rash or the liquid from your blisters. Poison ivy is spread only if you scratch your skin while it still has oil on it. You may think your rash is spreading because new rashes appear over a number of days. This happens because areas covered by thin skin break out in a rash first. Your face or forearms may develop a rash before thicker areas, such as the palms of your hands.

How can I prevent a poison ivy rash?

  • Wear skin protection: Wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and gloves. Use a skin block lotion to protect your skin from poison ivy oil. You can find this at a drugstore without a prescription.
  • Wash clothing after possible exposure: If you think you have been near a poison ivy plant, wash the clothes you were wearing separately from other clothes. Rinse the washing machine well after you take the clothes out. Scrub boots and shoes with warm, soapy water. Dry clean items and clothing that you cannot wash in water. Poison ivy oil is sticky and can stay on surfaces for a long time. It can cause a new rash even years later.
  • Bathe your pet: Use warm water and shampoo on your pet's fur. This will prevent the spread of oil to your skin, car, and home. Wear long sleeves, long pants, and gloves while washing pets or any items that may have oil on them.
  • Reduce exposure to poison ivy: Do not touch plants that look like poison ivy. Keep your yard free of poison ivy. While protecting your skin, remove the plant and the roots. Place them in a plastic bag and seal the bag tightly.
  • Do not burn poison ivy plants: This can spread the oil through the air. If you breathe the oil into your lungs, you could have swelling and serious breathing problems. Oil that clings to the fire ash can land on your skin and cause a rash.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have pus, soft yellow scabs, or tenderness on the rash.
  • The itching gets worse or keeps you awake at night.
  • The rash covers more than 1/4 of your skin or spreads to your eyes, mouth, or genital area.
  • The rash is not better after 2 to 3 weeks.
  • You have tender, swollen glands on the sides of your neck.
  • You have swelling in your arms and legs.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care or call 911?

  • You have a fever.
  • You have redness, swelling, and tenderness around the rash.
  • You have trouble breathing.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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