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Patient education: Poison ivy (The Basics)

Patient education: Poison ivy (The Basics)

What is poison ivy? — Poison ivy is a plant that can cause an itchy skin rash. When people have this rash, they often say, "I got poison ivy."

The same substance that causes the poison ivy rash is also found in poison oak, poison sumac, the ginkgo fruit, and mango peels.

How did I get poison ivy? — You might have gotten poison ivy if you:

Touched a poison ivy plant

Touched something that had the plant's oils on it (such as clothing, animal fur, or garden tools)

Were nearby when poison ivy plants were being burned

What does poison ivy look like? — Poison ivy and poison oak have 3 leaves coming off a single stem (figure 1). That's why there is a saying, "leaves of 3, let them be." The leaves start out green, but they can turn red or brown. Even dead plants can cause the rash.

What will happen to my rash? — Your rash should go away within 1 to 3 weeks, but it might form blisters before it does. Blisters are little bubbles of skin that are filled with fluid. They can show up in different places at different times. But that does not mean that the rash is spreading. Touching the blisters or the fluid inside the blisters will not spread the rash.

What can I do to relieve the itching? — You can:

Avoid scratching (that makes the itch worse)

Try putting a cold, wet cloth or paper towels on your rash

Use calamine lotion

If your blisters have started to pop, use skin products that have aluminum acetate in them (examples include Burrow's solution and Domeboro)

Should I see a doctor or nurse? — You should see your doctor or nurse if:

Your rash is severe

Most of your body is affected

Your face or genitals are affected

You have a lot of swelling

You are not sure that you have poison ivy

Your rash oozes pus or gives other signs of being infected

Your rash does not get better after 2 to 3 weeks

If you have a very bad rash, your doctor or nurse can prescribe medicines called steroids. These medicines can reduce swelling and relieve itching. Steroids come in creams, ointments, and pills. Your doctor or nurse will decide what form you should use.

Steroid creams and ointments are also sold without a prescription. But non-prescription versions are not usually strong enough to help with poison ivy.

Some creams or lotions can make your rash worse — The products listed below sometimes cause a reaction that makes your skin more itchy or irritated:

Antihistamine creams or lotions

Numbing products that have benzocaine

Antibiotic ointments that have neomycin or bacitracin

How do I keep from getting poison ivy again? — You can:

Stay away from poison ivy, even if the plant is dead

Wear long sleeves and pants when working near poison ivy, and wash your clothes right away when you are done

Wear thick vinyl gloves when doing yard work (latex and rubber gloves do not always protect against poison ivy)

As soon as possible, gently wash the area if you do touch poison ivy (do not rub or scrub). It might help to use a damp washcloth with liquid dish soap under running hot water.

Avoid burning poison ivy plants

More on this topic

Patient education: Contact dermatitis (The Basics)

Patient education: Poison ivy (Beyond the Basics)

This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Apr 02, 2023.
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