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How can I speed up poison ivy recovery?

Outsmarting Poison Ivy and Other Poisonous Plants

Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are a hazard year-round. Here are tips for preventing and treating the itchy rash and blisters.

First comes the itching, then a red rash, and then blisters. These symptoms of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac can emerge any time from a few hours to several days after exposure to the plant oil found in the sap of these poisonous plants. The culprit: the urushiol oil. Here are some tips to avoid it.

Recognizing Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac

  • Poison Ivy: Found throughout the United States except Alaska, Hawaii, and parts of the West Coast. Can grow as a vine or small shrub trailing along the ground or climbing on low plants, trees and poles. Each leaf has three glossy leaflets, with smooth or toothed edges. Leaves are reddish in spring, green in summer, and yellow, orange, or red in fall. May have greenish-white flowers and whitish-yellow berries.
  • Poison Oak: Grows as a low shrub in the Eastern and Southern United States, and in tall clumps or long vines on the Pacific Coast. Fuzzy green leaves in clusters of three are lobed or deeply toothed with rounded tips. May have yellow-white berries.
  • Poison Sumac: Grows as a tall shrub or small tree in bogs or swamps in the Northeast, Midwest, and parts of the Southeast. Each leaf has clusters of seven to 13 smooth-edged leaflets. Leaves are orange in spring, green in summer, and yellow, orange, or red in fall. May have yellow-greenish flowers and whitish-green fruits hang in loose clusters.

Poison Plant Rashes Aren’t Contagious

Poison ivy and other poison plant rashes can’t be spread from person to person. But it is possible to pick up the rash from plant oil that may have stuck to clothing, pets, garden tools, and other items that have come in contact with these plants. The plant oil lingers (sometimes for years) on virtually any surface until it’s washed off with water or rubbing alcohol.

The rash will occur only where the plant oil has touched the skin, so a person with poison ivy can’t spread it on the body by scratching. It may seem like the rash is spreading if it appears over time instead of all at once. But this is either because the plant oil is absorbed at different rates on different parts of the body or because of repeated exposure to contaminated objects or plant oil trapped under the fingernails. Even if blisters break, the fluid in the blisters is not plant oil and cannot further spread the rash.

Tips for Prevention

  • Learn what poison ivy, oak, and sumac plants look like so you can avoid them (watch our video).
  • Wash your garden tools and gloves regularly. If you think you may be working around poison ivy, wear long sleeves, long pants tucked into boots, and impermeable gloves.
  • Wash your pet if it may have brushed up against poison ivy, oak, or sumac. Use pet shampoo and water while wearing rubber gloves, such as dishwashing gloves. Most pets are not sensitive to poison ivy, but the oil can stick to their fur and cause a reaction in someone who pets them.
  • Wash your skin in soap and cool water as soon as possible if you come in contact with a poisonous plant. The sooner you cleanse the skin, the greater the chance that you can remove the plant oil or help prevent further spread.

Tips for Treatment

Don’t scratch the blisters. Bacteria from under your fingernails can get into them and cause an infection. The rash, blisters, and itch normally disappear in several weeks without any treatment.

You can relieve the itch by:

  • Using wet compresses or soaking in cool water.
  • Applying over-the-counter (OTC) topical corticosteroid preparations or taking prescription oral corticosteroids.
  • Applying topical OTC skin protectants, such as zinc acetate, zinc carbonate, zinc oxide, and calamine dry the oozing and weeping of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. Protectants such as baking soda or colloidal oatmeal relieve minor irritation and itching. Aluminum acetate is an astringent that relieves rash.

See a doctor if:

  • You have a temperature over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • There is pus, soft yellow scabs, or tenderness on the rash.
  • The itching gets worse or keeps you awake at night.
  • The rash spreads to your eyes, mouth, genital area, or covers more than one-fourth of your skin area.
  • The rash is not improving within a few weeks.
  • The rash is widespread and severe.
  • You have difficulty breathing.

The Best Home Remedies for Poison Ivy

poison ivy plant growing next to sidewalk

You’ve spent a glorious day in your garden. Or you went on a beautiful hike. Or you picnicked with friends, or took your dog for a walk, or… well, whatever you did, you’re now itchy, splotchy and covered in little red bumps.

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Poison ivy strikes again — or maybe it’s poison oak or poison sumac, as all three plants contain the same oily, allergy-inducing sap called urushiol. An estimated 50% to 75% of the population is allergic to urushiol, which is found in every part of the plant, including the fruit, leaves, stem, and root.

“When the plant is broken, the resin leaks out,” explains dermatologist Pamela Ng, MD. “You’ll get this rash everywhere the resin touches — and then, if you get it on your hands and touch your face or other parts of your body, you’ll spread it.”

Dr. Ng talks about how to treat your poison ivy rash at home and what to expect as it heals.

How poison ivy rash develops

Poison ivy rash (along with the rash from poison oak and poison sumac) brings on bumps, blotches and, typically, a linear streak of swelling and blisters. “It can even be weeping and crusting,” Dr. Ng says, “and it’s intensely itchy.”

But the rash may not appear right away.

If you’ve been exposed to urushiol in the past and are re-exposed again, your rash will appear in four to 96 hours (though 24 to 48 hours is most common). But if it’s your first time being exposed to the plant, it can take up to two weeks for a rash to appear.

“Your immune system has to develop an allergic reaction first,” Dr. Ng says, “so if it’s the first time your body has ever seen it, it’s going to take a while for the rash to appear.”

Just how contagious is poison ivy?

Poison ivy rash is easily spread — on your body and even from pets to humans. If you touch a poison ivy plant with your hands, for example, and then touch your face or body, you’ll see a rash at both the original point of contact and the places you’ve touched.

And you don’t necessarily have to make contact with the plant itself in order to make contact with the resin. “People can break out after contact with the resin on their gardening tools, their clothing, or their dogs,” Dr. Ng says.

What to do if you’ve been exposed to poison ivy

Uh-oh. While working in the backyard, you pulled out some unwanted weeds before realizing that one of them was poison ivy. Now what?

If you know you’ve come into contact with poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac, take a shower to wash off the resin. You won’t be able to get it all — after 10 minutes of washing your skin, only about 50% of the urushiol resin comes off — but you can lessen its impact.

You can also try Zanfel®, a special wash that you apply after exposure to limit urushiol’s effect on your skin. “It binds to the resin and neutralizes it so that it’s no longer an allergen for you,” Dr. Ng explains.

What to do if you have a poison ivy rash

Unfortunately, the best natural remedy for poison ivy is time.

“Poison ivy just has to run its own course,” Dr. Ng says. But if your rash has already developed, there are steps you can take to bring some relief in the meantime.

  • Use cold compresses: Three to four times a day, cover the affected area with a damp towel for relief — but don’t get it too wet. You want your skin to feel cool, but it shouldn’t turn soft, moist and whitish (called “maceration”).
  • Take a bath: Oatmeal baths and Domeboro® soaks are good home remedies for poison ivy itch, as they can relieve skin irritation. “They’re very soothing and can help dry up the rash,” Dr. Ng says.
  • Take an oral antihistamine: Over-the-counter allergy medications such as Benadryl® (diphenhydramine) or Zyrtec® (cetirizine) can counter your allergic reaction to urushiol.
  • Use an anti-itch product: Hydrocortisone creams, gels or ointments soothe the need to scratch. Just be sure not to use them for more than two weeks, and consult a doctor before using them around your eyes and/or using them on children. Calamine lotion and lotions containing menthol can help with itching, too.
  • Avoid other topical treatments: Stay away from benzocaine and topical antihistamines, which don’t offer any additional benefit. Plus, using them can induce sensitization to some of the components of these creams, which increases your risk of developing an allergic reaction to them in the future.
  • Protect your skin: Keep your rash clean to prevent infection, and if it’s blistered or weeping, wear long sleeves or a light bandage.
  • Don’t touch: “Try your hardest not to pick or scratch,” Dr. Ng urges, “because once the skin is open, you’re susceptible to infection.” Clip your nails short and wear long sleeves to lessen the likelihood of scratching.
  • Wait it out: If you’re wondering how long it takes for poison ivy to go away, you’ll have to be patient. The bumps and blisters can last 14 to 21 days.

Finally, don’t be alarmed if your rash gets worse before it gets better. It typically hits its peak at two weeks before starting to heal. “Try not to freak out if the rash isn’t gone yet,” Dr. Ng says. “This is its natural course.”

When to see a doctor

Most of the time, poison ivy heals on its own. But make an appointment with your doctor if you have:

  • Severe, extensive and widespread rash.
  • Rash on your face, including swelling around the eyelids.
  • Rash accompanied by fever, chills or signs of infection.

Your doctor may put you on topical or oral steroid.

How to prevent poison ivy rash

Once you’ve had a rash from poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac, your symptoms will appear more quickly the next time you’re exposed.

To lower your risk, do the following when you’re outdoors, especially gardening or doing yard work:

  • Apply an over-the-counter product designed to shield your skin from urushiol resin.
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts, pants and thick, vinyl gloves, as the resin can penetrate thin, surgical-style gloves.
  • Once indoors, take a shower to wash off urushiol resin and wash your clothes in detergent and hot water, including bleach, if appropriate, which can inactivate the resin.


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How Do I Get Rid of Poison Ivy Fast?

Poison ivy rash responds to soap and water, anti-itch lotions and baths, and steroid creams if the rash is severe.

Poison ivy rash responds to soap and water, anti-itch lotions and baths, and steroid creams if the rash is severe.

Poison ivy is mostly found east of the Rocky Mountains, where it grows as vines or shrubs. The leaves can have either smooth or notched edges and are usually clustered in groups of three. Exposure to poison ivy can cause allergic contact dermatitis.

There is a phrase, «leaves of three, let them be» that can serve as a helpful reminder to identify and avoid poison ivy and other related toxic plants. Poison ivy is often identified by three leaflets with flowering branches coming from a single stem. You may also spot characteristic black dots on the plant, which is oxidized urushiol (the oil that causes the reaction to poison ivy plants). Poison ivy also produces a green or off-white berry-like fruit in the fall. Poison ivy plants can look different based on the season, growth cycle, region, and climate.

What Are Symptoms of Poison Ivy?

Symptoms of poison ivy exposure include a red rash, which:

  • Usually appears within 4 hours to 4 days after exposure to the plant
  • Typically starts as small red bumps, and later develops blisters that can be different sizes
  • May crust or ooze
  • Itches intensely
  • Can occur anywhere on the body that has come into contact with the oil from the plant
  • Can be in any shape or pattern, but commonly seen in straight lines or streaks across the skin
  • Skin areas can break out at different times, which can seem as if the rash is spreading, however, leakage of blister fluid does not spread the rash
  • The rash is spread by exposure to the oil from the plant which may linger on hands, under fingernails, on clothing, shoes, and gardening tools
  • Lasts about two to three weeks

What Causes Poison Ivy?

The rash caused by poison ivy is an allergic skin reaction to an oil in the plant called urushiol. This oil is found in all parts of the plant, including the leaves, stems, roots, sap, and fruit (berries).

Exposure to the oil occurs through:

  • By toughing any part of the plant
  • Touching something that has the urushiol on it, such as garden tools or clothing
  • Touching pets or animals that have been exposed to the plant oil
  • Inhaling smoke from burning the plants

How Is Poison Ivy Diagnosed?

Poison ivy rash is usually diagnosed by the appearance of the rash alone. No additional tests are needed.

What Is the Treatment for Poison Ivy?

Self-care at home is all that is needed to treat poison ivy rash. The rash usually goes away on its own without treatment within one to three weeks.

If you are exposed to poison ivy or the oil, wash thoroughly with soap and water as soon as possible to get rid of the oils fast. Remember to get under the fingernails as well. Rubbing alcohol may also be used to dissolve and remove the oils from the skin. Fast removal of the oil will help prevent poison ivy dermatitis. If the oil is able to be removed within 10 minutes, a rash is unlikely to develop.

Treatments that may be used to help relieve itching, soreness, and discomfort caused by poison ivy dermatitis include:

  • Skin treatments
    • Oatmeal baths
    • Application of cool wet compresses
    • Calamine lotion
    • Astringents containing aluminum acetate (Burow’s solution) and Domeboro may help to relieve the rash once the blisters begin leaking fluid
    • Steroid creams
      • Best if used during the first few days of symptoms
      • Over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams do not usually help; stronger prescription steroid creams may be needed
      • For severe symptoms or rash on a large area, or the face or genitals
      • Steroid pills (e.g., prednisone) or injections (e.g., triamcinolone acetonide, budesonide)
      • For secondary skin infections caused by scratching

      Antihistamines are not generally used because they do not relieve itching caused by poison ivy dermatitis, however, antihistamines that make you sleepy such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) may help you sleep through the itch. Antihistamine creams or lotions, anesthetic creams containing benzocaine, or antibiotic creams containing neomycin or bacitracin are not recommended because they could make the rash worse.

      What Are Complications of Poison Ivy?

      Complications of poison ivy include:

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