Poison ivy grows as a shrub or vine in wooded areas or fields; it is recognizable by three bright green leaves on each stem of the plant. Exposure to the plant can cause an allergic reaction to urushiol (u-roo-she-ol), an oil found in the leaves, stems, and roots of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. The reaction results in an uncomfortable, itchy rash for those in contact with the plant. Occasionally when the urushoil is exposed to the air and gets on the skin, it may turn black in color.
Three types of contact can occur:
- Direct contact between the plant and skin
- Touching garage equipment, gardening tools, or other objects that have come in direct contact with the plant
- Airborne contact from burning these plants which can result in urushiol particles entering the nose, eyes, mouth, or respiratory system
85 percent of Americans will have a reaction to poison ivy that includes red patches, itching, swelling, blisters that leak fluid and later scab, inflammation, and a burning sensation.
“Treatment may begin with using Benadryl and a topical steroid cream for itch, avoid scratching directly on the area,” said Mitzi Miller, PA-C of Jersey Shore Hospital & Urgent Care at McElhattan. “If the poison continues to spread, a trip to a healthcare provider may be necessary to lessen the itching and reduce inflammation.”
Self-care includes keeping the infected area clean by washing it with soap and water, and patting the rash dry with a towel. A compress can be used by dipping a clean washcloth into cool water and leaving the cloth on the skin for 15 minutes at least 3 times per day. Benadryl and/or Zantac over the counter can help with itching as these work to decrease the histamine reaction.
A cornstarch or oatmeal bath can be effective when the infected area is too large for a washcloth; 1 pound of cornstarch mixed with a little water will make a paste that can be added to a tub full of lukewarm water. Scratching should be avoided since it can cause the skin to become infected.
To prevent future outbreaks wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and gloves when there is a chance of coming in contact with the plant. Skin block lotion, which is available at most drugstores, can also be worn to protect skin from the plant oil.
Poison ivy oil is sticky and can remain on surfaces with the potential to cause new rashes years later. Clothing that came in contact with the plant should be washed separately from other clothes, and the washing machine should be rinsed after the clothes are taken out. Items that have come in contact with the plant, including shoes, tools, and pets, should be washed with warm, soapy water.
A poison ivy rash can last 1 to 3 weeks and can most often be treated at home, however serious reactions can occur and should be examined by healthcare providers.
Mitzi Miller, PA-C, is a Physicians Assistant at the Jersey Shore Hospital Emergency Room and Urgent Care at McElhattan.