July 9, 2024

How to Identify and Treat Poison Ivy: A Guide from an Emergency Medicine Doctor

By Dr. Kevin Rankins of Elliot Urgent Care 

 As an emergency medicine doctor, I often see patients who are not sure whether they have touched poison ivy. Knowing how to spot and treat this common plant can save you a lot of itching and trouble. Here is a quick guide on how to identify poison ivy, manage the symptoms, and when to seek medical help. 

How to Identify Poison Ivy 

1. Leaves: Poison ivy usually has groups of three pointed leaves. The saying “Leaves of three, let them be” is a helpful reminder. The leaves can be smooth or slightly jagged and may have a shiny surface. 

2. Color: The leaves change color with the seasons - red in spring, green in summer, and yellow/orange/red in fall. 

3. Growth: Poison ivy can grow as a vine or a shrub. It is found across North America in forests, along rivers, and even in cities. 

Common Symptoms of Poison Ivy 

1. Itching and Redness: The rash usually starts with itching and redness in the area that touched the plant. 

2. Blisters: Small blisters may develop. These can break open and ooze, which can spread the rash if the oil stays on your skin. 

3. Swelling: The area may become swollen and sore. 


How to Treat Poison Ivy 

  • Wash Immediately: If you think you touched poison ivy, wash the area with soap and water as soon as possible. Dawn dish soap works best. This can help remove the plant’s oil (urushiol) and prevent it from spreading. 
  • Clothes and Objects: Wash any clothes, shoes, and objects that may have touched the plant to prevent getting the oil on you again. 
  • Cool Compresses: Put a cool, wet compress on the affected area to help with itching and swelling. 
  • Topical Treatments: Use over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion to soothe the skin. Antihistamines can also help. 
  • Oatmeal Baths: Take a lukewarm oatmeal bath to help with itching. 
  • Avoid Scratching: Scratching can cause infection. Keep your nails short and consider wearing gloves if you scratch while sleeping. 

Learn More About Elliot Urgent Care

When to Get Medical Help 

Most cases of poison ivy can be treated at home, but you should seek medical attention: 

  • If you have trouble breathing, your face or eyes swell, or have a widespread, severe rash, seek emergency medical help immediately 
  • If the rash looks infected (more red, warm, swollen, or has pus) 
  • If the rash does not get better within a few weeks or is painful. A provider may prescribe stronger medications, like oral steroids, to reduce inflammation. 

Poison Ivy Prevention Tips 

The best thing you can do is stay away from poison ivy. Here are some tips to avoid poison ivy:  

  1. Learn to Identify: Know what poison ivy looks like in different seasons. 
  2. Protective Clothing: Wear long sleeves, pants, and gloves when in areas where poison ivy might grow. 
  3. Barrier Creams: Apply creams containing bentoquatam before going into areas with poison ivy to prevent the plant oil from getting on the skin. 
  4. Pets: Keep pets away from poison ivy so that they do not spread the oil to you. 

Poison ivy can be an itchy nuisance, but with quick treatment, you can feel better faster. Remember, prevention is important. If you are careful, you can enjoy the outdoors without worrying about an itchy rash. If you are ever not sure about a rash, reach out to a health care provider for advice and treatment. 

The Elliot offers convenient ways to get care for poison ivy, with our VirtualER service where you will connect with an Elliot emergency medicine physician virtually from the convenience of your location. 

If you prefer to be seen in person, Elliot Urgent Care is always staffed with emergency medicine providers, ready to help you with anything from poison ivy to X-rays. Visit us in Bedford, Londonderry, or Manchester. Learn more about our services or schedule an appointment here.  

Have a safe and itch-free summer! 

Dr. Kevin Rankins practices emergency medicine at Elliot Hospital, Elliot Urgent Care, and Elliot VirtualER.  




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