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5 tips on how to recognize, prevent and treat poison ivy

Posted on by Joan B Thode, MD


Nothing can ruin summer fun like a bout with poison ivy. Because poison ivy is coated in an oil that easily rubs off when you touch the leaves triggering an immune system reaction, the infamous "leaves of three" cause a rash in 75-85% of people who are exposed.

Timing is tricky...and sticky

The first time a person is exposed to poison ivy oil, it could take 2-14 days for the rash to develop. On subsequent exposures, the rash will likely erupt in 1-3 days. Often people do not realize the oil is on their skin until it’s too late.

In addition, the oil adheres to surfaces and doesn’t wash away easily with a spritz of water (since oil repels water), sticking not only to skin, but also to clothing, shoes, backpack, dog’s fur, and car seats. So, you can get poison ivy without ever touching the actual plant. For example, if your family dog ran through the woods and brushed by some poison ivy, family members who pet the dog later in the day could get the poison ivy rash.

As you head out into the garden or woods, be on the lookout for leaves of 3...and as the old adage and suggests: let it be. If you do have a run-in with poison ivy, there are steps you can take to help ease the itch.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Poison ivy has three leaves with smooth edges that come together with a red-colored stem. The leaves are reddish in the spring and green in summer. It grows from a vine that can be found on the ground or wrapped on tree trunks.
  • If you are exposed to poison ivy or have been in areas with lots of foliage, wash exposed skin surfaces right away to help minimize the oils on the skin.
  • Do not re-wear clothing you wore outside and wash down the dog, stroller, bike, etc. if any may have brushed by bushes and leaves on a hike. Leave hiking shoes outside the house or in a separate area.
  • The rash is extremely itchy and can appear like bubbles of clear fluid on a red base. While the oil on the surface of the skin can initially spread, the fluid from the bubbles cannot spread the poison ivy rash. Get relief with an oral antihistamine or a topical drying compound like calamine.
  • Seek medical care if the rash is on your face, genitals or in multiple locations on the body, as more aggressive treatment may be needed.

 | Roseville Pediatrics - North Pointe

Joan B. Thode, MD, FAAP, is a pediatrician with LG Health Physicians Roseville Pediatrics. Education: Undergraduate—Franklin & Marshall College; Medical School—George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Residency—NYU Langone Medical Center.

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