You can find poison ivy throughout the entire contiguous United States. Because it’s so prevalent, millions of people get a poison ivy rash every year. While it’s an annoying menace for anyone who enjoys the outdoors, it’s very possible to treat this rash without any prescription medication or a visit to the family physician.
Today, let’s break down how to treat poison ivy, and how you can recognize this plant to avoid it in the first place.
What is Poison Ivy Rash?
Poison ivy rash is the condition you get whenever your skin comes into contact with the oily resin known as urushiol. This resin is produced on the surface leaves, stems, and roots of the toxicodendron family of plants, which includes poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac plants.
This oil is a defense mechanism produced by the plant to prevent bugs and other animals from munching on the leaves. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy for humans to accidentally rub up against the oil when doing yard work, exploring, or camping.
The good news is that poison ivy can’t normally be spread to other people if it gets on your skin. In a nutshell, poison ivy rash is a skin reaction to the urushiol oil. Therefore, people can’t get poison ivy just by touching your rash if it’s several days old and there is no more oil on your skin’s surface.
However, you can spread that skin rash to yourself--poison ivy can quickly spread across the entire body if you aren’t aware that you have contracted it in the first place and move the oil around your skin unknowingly.
Want to be able to recognize poison ivy? The plants are usually characterized by three broad leaves shaped like spoons, though it can occasionally have more than three. Furthermore, the plant normally grows along watery borders (like riverbeds). The leaves are often bright red with white/cream-colored berries during the fall season.
What Are Common Symptoms of Poison Ivy?
Most will suffer a mild allergic skin reaction to poison ivy oil. Symptoms normally begin within 12 to 48 hours after the oil comes into contact with your skin, and it’s not uncommon for the rash to have an oddly straight-lined appearance. This isn’t characteristic of the rash itself and is normally just because of how the poison ivy leaf contacts your skin.
Typical symptoms include:
- general redness around the affected area
- an itchy rash or patch of itchy skin
- inflammation or swelling
However, some people experience more severe reactions from contracting a poison ivy rash. For instance, if you ever accidentally breathe in smoke from burning a poison ivy plant (say, it got into a campfire by accident), you may have difficulty breathing as your throat and lung tissue swell.
Other people may have a severe allergic reaction because of genetic vulnerability or because they got tons of poison ivy oil on their skin. More severe symptoms include:
- swelling of the eyes, mouth or genital area
- blisters oozing pus
- persistent rash that doesn’t go away on its own
In the event that you develop any of these symptoms, you should always go to a doctor for medical care.
But, the good news is that poison ivy rash normally goes away by itself within 2 to 3 weeks in most cases.
How to Treat Poison Ivy Rash
If your poison ivy rash isn’t particularly severe, you can normally handle it on your own with homemade remedies for poison ivy treatment.
First and foremost, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends that you wash your skin with lukewarm and soapy water if you suspect that you've come into contact with poison ivy. If you wash off the urushiol oil fast enough, there’s a chance you won’t develop a rash at all or that you may only develop a small rash since it takes time for the oil to sink into your skin and start the allergic reaction.
Even if you already have a rash, you should still wash the affected area to prevent any residual oil from spreading around your body or to other people. Make sure to use lukewarm water and not cool water--oil comes off more easily with warmer water than cold.
You should also wash the clothing you were wearing when you came into contact with the poison ivy plants. It’s best not to take any chances! The same is true for any other tools or items that might have come into contact with urushiol oil.
After washing the area, you may still develop a poison ivy rash. General care tips and techniques include:
- Taking warm baths regularly. This can help soothe the affected tissue and make it easier to sleep.
- Apply a cool compress or wash rag onto the rash to help reduce irritation.
These basic efforts are more about limiting the milder symptoms. It’s difficult to accelerate the rate at which poison ivy disappears; in most cases, treatment is about making yourself more comfortable and helping your body rest so it can fight off the reaction.
It should go without saying that you should avoid trying to scratch the affected area as much as possible!
Even if you thoroughly wash the rash area, your fingernails might still pick up trace amounts of poison ivy oil and spread it across the rest of your body if you aren’t careful. Do your best to avoid scratching and rely on the below methods to try and overcome the discomfort instead.
Natural salves can be very helpful when applied directly to a poison ivy rash. These salves, like Green Goo’s Poison Ivy Salve, combine lots of plant-based ingredients that can help support the natural healing process by:
- Helping to soothe irritation caused by the rash
- Providing overall skin protection
- Providing temporary pain relief
Basically, such salves may help to support the overall wellness of the affected area, especially in terms of providing moisturization. Salves certainly don’t cure poison ivy, but the ingredients nourish the skin while it heals, provide a protective layer, aid in pain relief, and the astringent helps dry the rash up.
You can also look into over-the-counter (OTC) medications. These are typically hydrocortisone creams or calamine lotions. The latter of these is a typical itch relief treatment that can also alleviate some of the symptoms associated with poison ivy rash. Cortisone creams are a little more hardcore and are better if you have a harsher poison ivy reaction.
Alternatively, you may be able to take oral antihistamine pills. These OTC pills are designed to reduce itching throughout the body by counteracting your body's allergic response. However, a common undesirable side effect of oral antihistamines is that a lot of them can cause drowsiness.
The good news is that some antihistamine companies have also released antihistamine creams, such as Benadryl's topical diphenhydramine cream. Keep in mind you do need to pick one or the other--never use both a topical antihistamine and an oral antihistamine simultaneously!
There are plenty of home remedies you can also employ in addition to the natural salves and OTC options mentioned above. For instance, rubbing alcohol may actually help your body get rid of a rash a little more quickly by drying out your skin and causing the affected skin to flake away more quickly. Don’t overdo this, though, or you’ll make your skin more irritable causing worse damage.
There are also recipes for home remedy mixtures that you can apply topically to the rash. Combine apple cider vinegar, witch hazel, baking soda, and water to make your own anti-poison ivy solution. This works just like rubbing alcohol but is a little less harsh on your skin.
When to See a Doctor
You may need to see a doctor if your poison ivy rash doesn’t go away by itself after 2 to 3 weeks, if the rash continues to spread throughout your body, or if you notice any of the more severe symptoms we listed above. Furthermore, don’t be afraid to call on a doctor if you feel uncomfortable or if you believe the reaction has spread to your throat.
A doctor will be able to prescribe stronger medication like prednisone to help calm down your body's allergic reaction.
How to Avoid Poison Ivy in the Future
Getting over a poison ivy rash is one thing, but it’s always better to avoid contracting the plant in the first place.
A good rule of thumb is to always dress with appropriate clothes if you’re going to head into an area where poison ivy is known to grow. For instance, don’t wear shorts and a short-sleeve shirt--wear jeans and a long sleeve top instead.
It may also be a good idea to wear gloves – heavy-duty rubber ones are usually great for yard work or if you are trying to clean out poison ivy from your backyard. Such gloves can easily be washed after the task is done, and the oil comes right off the surface instead of sinking into the fabric.
You should also use closed-toe shoes or boots and wear a few layers of socks, particularly if you are outside in cold weather. Again, wash everything that might have come into contact with poison ivy leaves after being outside in the plant’s natural environment.
Poison ivy is a very treatable rash and doesn’t take much personal effort to soothe, though it can be very annoying to live with. That’s why it’s important to take the correct measures to heal and treat the rash to avoid any increase in recovery time. Following the above advice and using some of the salves and home remedies we mentioned can help with the natural healing process to get over the rash and get you back to your non-itchy self!