Misconceptions about poison ivy have led desperate sufferers to adopt some pretty bizarre cures. Here are some tried-and-true home remedies that can be helpful in treating poison ivy rash. But the best way to foil the itch is by minding the old saying, “Leaflets three, let it be.”
Poison ivy has a nasty habit of rewarding those who touch it with two or three weeks of blistering misery. It is nature’s nasty revenge, but with a little education you can learn to identify it, prevent it, or treat it with a bit less aggravation.
Identifying a Poison Ivy Plant
- Poison ivy’s “leaves of three” are glossy-green, but are tinged with pink in the spring, and take on a brilliant orange in the autumn.
- These leaves sometimes vary in appearance, however. They can be either shiny or dull, and some are lobed or toothed while others are not. Usually, they are shiny when young and turn dull green as a mature plant.
- Poison ivy can grow as an erect shrub, a winding vine, or simply along the ground.
- It has small, pearl-colored berries. These are a favorite treat of many birds, which spread poison ivy seeds around the countryside.
- Seedlings of the boxelder tree look similar to poison ivy with three leaves, but they do not have berries and are yellow in the autumn. The leaves of Virginia creeper also look similar to those of poison ivy, but Virginia creeper has five leaflets rather than three.
- Poison ivy is especially common around fences or along roadways.
Photo Credit: Michigan State University. Poison ivy always has three leaflets, but their coloration can change from green to orange to red.
What Causes a Poison Ivy Rash?
The “poison” in poison ivy is an oily resin called urushiol (yoo-ROO-she-ol) found in virtually all parts of these poisonous plants. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, approximately 85 percent of the population is sensitive to urushiol, making it one of the most potent allergens on Earth.
- The leaves, especially young ones, contain the most toxin.
- The oil can remain on tool handles and clothing for as long as a year. Dogs and cats can carry its potency on their fur. This is why you can come down with a rash without having seen poison ivy in months.
- People may become more sensitive to the oily resin urushiol with multiple exposures. If you’ve had poison ivy before, be sure to avoid it in the future.
- Different people have different sensitivities to poison ivy. The older you get before coming into contact with it, the better: You will have a lower chance of developing an allergy. Only about 15 percent of people are resistant to poison ivy.
Signs of a Poison Ivy Rash
- A poison ivy rash will usually occur within 12 to 48 hours of contact with the plant. The area will severely swell, itch, and turn red. Later, blisters will form. The blisters eventually become crusted and take about 10 days to heal.
- Red bumps also might form where the blisters will soon appear.
- Often, a poison ivy rash appears in a streaked pattern. This mimics the way in which a person has rubbed up against the plant.
- Be careful not to confuse poison ivy with “swimmer’s itch.” They might seem similar at the beginning, especially because poison ivy might be in a lakeside or pondside area where you’re swimming. For more tips on swimmer’s itch, look at this article.
What to Do If You Come into Contact with Poison Ivy
Fortunately, the oils don’t always go to work immediately, especially on dirty or work-hardened hands. If you come in contact with poison ivy, here’s what to do:
Get to a source of water immediately. If you can clean yourself and your clothes with cold water within 10 minutes of touching the plant, the oil might not be absorbed into your skin.
Washing with soap is helpful within the first 30 minutes after exposure. Do not use soaps containing oils, as they may spread the urushiol further. Scrub under your fingernails!
Wiping affected areas with rubbing alcohol can be effective, too.
Be sure to wash any clothing or gear that comes in contact with poison ivy, as the oil can persist for years. Launder your clothes using old yellow laundry soap or boraxo to cut the oil. (Soaps made with fat are ineffective.)
Don’t forget about your pet! They can also touch poison ivy and get the oils on their fur. Put on long rubber gloves and give your pet a bath.
Can a Poison Ivy Rash Spread?
It is a common misconception that touching a body part with a poison ivy rash and then touching another body part causes the rash to spread. The rash might appear on some body parts later than others, but this is only due to a difference in the time it takes for the poison oil to absorb into the skin.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “poison ivy rash is NOT contagious; blister fluid doesn’t contain urushiol and won’t spread the rash. And you can’t get poison ivy from another person unless you’ve touched urushiol that’s still on that person or their clothing.”
How to Treat Poison Ivy Rash: Home Remedies
The road is littered with herbal and home remedies, many of which do reduce swelling and itching, such as the teas and poultices that Native Americans and pioneers traditionally prepared from jewelweed, chamomile, gumweed, goldenseal, and Solomon’s seal.
Today, we consider these the best ways to relieve a poison ivy rash:
- Treat mild cases of poison ivy itch with soothing lotions such as calamine lotion, over-the-counter cortisone creams, and saltwater soaks, but severe cases may require prescription cortisone.
- Soaking in a cool bath helps relieve poison ivy rash, especially combined with a baking soda solution.
- Another home remedy for poison ivy rashes—as well as most other itches—is a tepid oatmeal bath. Put a cup or two of rolled oats into a piece of cheesecloth or into the cut-off leg of an old pair of pantyhose, tie it loosely, and set it under the faucet as you draw a tepid bath. Let the oats soak for a while in the water, periodically squeezing the stocking-bag to release the liquid, As you soak in the tub, rub the bag of oats over your skin like a bar of soap to increase the soothing effect.
- Try not to scratch! Excessive scratching of blisters can cause infections. Try to ease the itch, or simply find a distraction, so as not to make your rash even worse. Wash broken blisters lightly, and cover with a bandage to prevent further itching and infection.
Home Remedies That Do NOT Work
Many past home remedies include futile treatments concocted by desperate souls that may have caused more harm than help: bathing in horse urine, scrubbing with kerosene or gunpowder, and soaking in strychnine, bleach, or ammonia. Contemporary sufferers have been known to apply hair spray, deodorant, and fingernail polish to poison ivy and poison oak rashes in hopes of suffocating the itch. Needless to say, do NOT try any of these “solutions.”
Poison Ivy Rash Prevention
Avoiding a rash is easiest when one or more preventative techniques are used!
- Wear long sleeves and gloves when in poison ivy–infested areas.
- If you know that you’ll be around poison ivy, consider applying a barrier cream that will act as a layer of protection between your skin and the oils that cause the rash. One barrier cream called IvyBlock, which contains a substance called quaternium-18 bentonite that bonds with the urushiol, claims to be effective 68% of the time if applied before any contact with poison ivy.
- Try to stay on cleared paths, don’t tromp off path. If you are camping, camp in a cleared area, not in the middle of brush.
- Wash any clothes or equipment if you have been walking in a wooded area with low shrubs.
- Eradicating poison ivy is probably the best way to remain itch-free. The plants can be pulled, but broken-off rootlets may sprout again the next year. The plants can be destroyed by covering them with black plastic. Even the environmentally conscientious usually resort to chemicals; plant and garden stores carry a number of commercial products. But beware—even dead plants are infectious. Read more about getting rid of poison ivy (and a few other noxious weeds).
- Do NOT burn the plants! Because urushiol molecules are carried in smoke, it is never safe to burn poison ivy (or poison oak).
Be sure to check our page on Summer Itches to know when you need to take a trip to the hospital based on complications of a poison ivy rash.
Perhaps someday, plant scientists will develop a non-poisonous variety. Rumor has it that they have already crossed poison ivy with four-leaf clovers, hoping to get a rash of good luck. (Sorry, we couldn’t resist!)