August 1, 2023

Managing Poison Ivy: Diagnosing and Treating the Itchy Menace

By Dr. Kevin Rankins

Poison ivy, with its notorious itch-inducing properties, is a common plant that can cause discomfort and irritation when encountered. Whether you're an outdoor enthusiast or simply spending time in your backyard, it's essential to be aware of how to diagnose and treat poison ivy rashes effectively.

Poison ivy rashes are a type of contact dermatitis caused by a localized reaction to the plant's oil called urushiol. Symptoms typically appear within 12 to 72 hours after contact and may include redness, itching, swelling, and blisters. The rash will only appear in the areas that touched the oil, such as the hands, arms, legs, and face. Touching a pet that had contact with poison ivy can also cause a rash if the oil is still on their skin.

Treating Poison Ivy Rash

When you suspect that there has been contact with poison ivy, immediately:

  • Avoid touching your face or other parts of your body as this can cause the rash to spread.
  • Avoid petting your dog until you wash the oil off.
  • Wash the affected areas with soap and water as soon as possible to remove the urushiol oil.
  • Wash all clothes that may have come in to contact with the urushiol oil.
  • Never burn brush which may contain poison ivy as the smoke can be inhaled and cause a life-threatening allergic reaction.

“The most common question I get regarding poison ivy is, ‘Am I spreading the rash by itching it?’” says Kevin Rankins, MD of Elliot Urgent Care - River’s Edge. “I tell my patients that the rash only appears on the skin in areas which have been in direct contact with the oil from the plant. As long as you have washed away the oil from your skin, clothes, pets, tools, and under your fingernails, the rash will not spread. The most important reason to not itch your skin is to prevent a skin infection.”

Over-the-Counter Remedies

Poison ivy is usually treatable at home. The rash can last 2-3 weeks and will clear on its own. These treatments should reduce itchiness and inflammation:

  • Calamine lotion can help soothe the itching.
  • Non-prescription hydrocortisone creams can reduce inflammation and itching.
  • Apply cool, damp compresses to the affected areas.
  • Take an oatmeal bath to soothe the skin.
  • Aloe vera gel can provide a cooling effect and promote healing.
  • Refrain from scratching the rash, as it may lead to infection or worsen the symptoms.
  • If you have any trouble breathing, please go immediately to your local emergency department.

When to Seek Medical Attention

If the rash covers a large area of the body, or if there is swelling of the face or throat, seek immediate medical attention. A prescription of oral steroids tapered over 2-3 weeks may be needed to manage the rash. You should also seek help if the rash becomes infected (signs include increased pain, warmth, redness, and drainage). If there are signs of infection, antibiotics may be prescribed topically or orally.

Elliot Urgent Care is here for you. We provide board-certified emergency room physicians and specialized clinical staff and offer advanced diagnostic capabilities to treat patients of all ages for non-life-threatening illnesses and injuries, including poison ivy.

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