Dermatologists and Skin Care

Poison Ivy - Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention

Written by
Dr. Sneha Kannan
and medically reviewed by Dr. Nitika

Published on Nov 18, 2019   -  5 min read



Do you have red, painful, and itchy bumps on your body after going to the woods? These bumps can be poison ivy rashes. Read about how to identify and avoid these poisonous plants, symptoms of poison ivy rash, and its treatment.

Poison Ivy - Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention

What Is Poison Ivy and Poison Ivy Rash?

Poison ivy, otherwise called Toxicodendron radicans, is a poisonous flowering plant commonly found in Asia and North America. It is known to cause urushiol-induced contact dermatitis, which results in painful and itchy rashes in people who come in contact with this plant. This allergic reaction is caused by urushiol, which is a clear, odorless, and sticky liquid found in the plant's sap.

This plant mainly grows in woodland, where there is an abundance of sunlight. It is a shrub and does not grow very tall. In spring, these plants produce green berries and yellow flowers. You can identify a poison ivy plant by its leaves, which has three leaflets and can be light to dark green in color. Most people are allergic and will develop a rash if they touch this plant.

poison ivy


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How Does Poison Ivy Cause Allergic Reaction?

The sap of this plant, which is present in the leaves, stems, and roots, causes this allergic reaction. This sap contains urushiol, which is a pale yellow oil and is also present in poison oak and poison sumac.

When this oil touches the skin, it causes the skin to blister. An allergic reaction can result from:

  • Touching the plant - It includes touching the leaves, stem, roots, or berries.

  • Touching things that have come in contact with the plant - Pet fur, clothes, shoes, or other equipment.

  • Breathing in smoke when this plant is burned - Inhaling the smoke is the most severe type of exposure. It can irritate your nasal passage and lungs, resulting in breathing problems.

The fluid from the blister does not usually spread the rash, as it does not contain urushiol.

What Symptoms Does a Poison Ivy Rash Cause?

Coming in contact with a poison ivy plant result in a rash and other signs and symptoms like:

  • Redness.

  • Itchiness.

  • Inflammation.

    Related Topics

  • Blisters.

  • Dyspnea (difficulty breathing) from inhaling smoke.

The rash typically develops in a straight line where the plant brushed against the skin. Rash from wearing a cloth that has been contaminated with urushiol will result in a more widespread rash. The allergic reaction to urushiol develops 12 to 48 hours after exposure. This rash can last up to a couple of weeks or more. The healing time depends on the amount of urushiol that got inside your skin.

Get immediate medical help if you:

  • Have a severe allergic reaction.

  • Have breathing problems because of inhaling smoke from burning poison.

  • Have edema.

  • Develop rashes on the eyes, mouth, and genitals.

  • Are oozing pus from the blisters.

  • Have a fever.

  • Do not feel better in a week.

What Are the Risk Factors for Exposure to Poison Ivy?

The activities that increase your risk of exposure to poison ivy are:

  • Hunting.

  • Farming.

  • Gardening.

  • Camping.

  • Installing cable or telephone lines.

  • Working in construction sites.

How Is a Poison Ivy Rash Diagnosed?

No test is needed to diagnose this condition, as your doctor will be able to diagnose it through clinical examination. If you already know that you touched poison ivy, there is no need to diagnose this condition.

If needed, your doctor might rule out other common skin conditions that cause similar rashes like psoriasis.

How Is a Poison Ivy Rash Treated?

Poison ivy rashes clear on there own in 2 to 3 weeks if left untreated. You can try some home remedies that will relieve itching and other symptoms. You might need corticosteroid creams or ointments only if the rash is widespread. And if the rash gets infected, you will require antibiotics.

After exposure to urushiol, try doing the following:

  • Properly wash your hands, skin, and clothes. Washing within 30 minutes removes some of the oil and lessens the allergic reaction.

  • Oil can remain on your clothes and gardening equipment for a long time, so always wash them properly.

  • You can use an antihistamine, Calamine lotion, and Hydrocortisone to stop the itching.

  • Avoid scratching, as it will make the rash worse. It also increases the risk of infection.

  • Apply cool compresses.

Home Remedies:

Try the following home remedies to reduce itching and redness:

  • Use oils and lotions that contain Menthol, as it leaves a cooling effect on the skin.

  • Try using chamomile, eucalyptus, etc., essential oils, only after diluting them.

  • Aloe vera gel can be used to relieve itching and inflammation.

  • Taking a bath with water and oatmeal helps skin rashes.

  • Apple cider vinegar is widely used for a poison ivy rash.

What Are the Complications of a Poison Ivy Rash?

The complications include:

  1. Infection - The blister or rash can get infected and start oozing pus. Get immediate medical help if this happens, because you will need treatment with antibiotics.

  2. Breathing problems - Inhaling smoke of burning poison ivy can irritate your airway and lungs.

  3. The spread of rash - Urushiol can remain in your hands, pet’s fur, clothing, and gardening equipment, which can spread if it comes in contact with your skin.

  4. Death - Breathing difficulties and swelling if not treated immediately might result in fatal complications.

How to Prevent Getting Exposed to Poison Ivy?

The common preventive tips include:

  • Educate yourself about this plant and how it looks, so you can avoid going close to it.

  • Wear clothing that covers your hands and legs while hiking or gardening.

  • Avoid walking through shrubs and plants in forest areas.

  • Do not let your pets run through wooded areas.

  • Always wear protective clothing like socks, boots, pants, and gloves when needed.

  • Remove all weeds from your garden by wearing heavy gloves. Avoid buring poison ivy.

  • After coming home from the woods, wash your skin and pet's fur.

  • If you have been exposed to urushiol, was the are with water and soap within 30 minutes.

  • Give your pet a bath after wearing long rubber gloves.

  • Wash your clothes properly with detergent in a washing machine.

  • Clean your gardening equipment and shoes properly.

  • Apply skin products that act as a barrier between your skin and urushiol.

Poison ivy rashes are not contagious, that is, it cannot spread from person to person through coming in contact with blisters. For more information on home remedies, consult a doctor now.

Last reviewed at:
18 Nov 2019  -  5 min read




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