Poison Ivy Rash

1 What is a poison ivy rash?

Urushiol can be found in the roots, leaves, and stems of poison ivy, poison sumac, and poison oak. If you touched this oil wash your skin right away and avoid touching other parts of your body to reduce the chances of getting a poison ivy rash, which can be very itchy and can last for weeks.

Once a person comes in contact with this plant and is allergic to it, the immune system of the person will start reacting to the oil as if it is a harmful substance.

As per findings of American Academy of Dermatology, almost 85% of the population is allergic to poison ivy. And one out of ten reported cases is severe.

There are approximately 50 million people in America who suffer from allergies caused from poison ivy, sumac, or oak. All these are plants which can cause rashes and itchiness as an allergic reaction. It is one of the most common skin problems that people suffer from through contact of plants. 

A person can get a poison ivy rash rash in the following ways:

  • Touching or brushing of the skin to any part of the plant which includes the leaves, stem, flowers, berries, and roots even if the plant is dead
  • Touching anything like clothing, sporting gear, golf clubs, shoes, gardening tools, or anything else that has come in contact with a poison ivy plant

The rash can spread only through the oil present in the plant.


Soothing lotions and cool baths can help a mild poison ivy rash but if it is severe, you might need prescription medication, especially if it is in your genitals or face.

2 How to identify poison ivy plants

The poison ivy plant is a small shrub which is found in the north and west parts of United States. This plant grows like a trailing vine along the ground or clinging to trees.

The leaves of this plant have a glossy surface and consist of three pointed leaf clusters.

The leaves are green in color during summers and change to red or yellow in the spring and fall. The plant may have flowers and they produce tiny green berries that change to white in the fall.

The juice from this poison ivy plant consists of the urushiol oil that causes the allergy.

Even if a person has never seen this three leafed ivy plant, the rashes caused by this plant cannot be ignored. The allergic reaction caused to the human body is known as contact dermatitis.

3 Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of poison ivy rash are:

  • Itching
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Blisters that may leak fluid

The rash typically occurs in a straight line because of how the plant brushes against your skin, but it can spread out if you come in contact with pet fur or clothing that has urushoil on it and you can transfer it to other body parts. Your skin would react in 12 to 48 hours and the reaction can last for up to three weeks. Your skin needs to be touched by the oil to have a poison ivy rash. The blister fluid will not cause you rash.

The rashes at times may take a long time to fully develop and the rashes may be formed in new areas as well, but only in places where the oil has come in contact with the skin. The severity of the rash will depend on the amount of oil that touches the skin. The portion of skin that has the presence of more urushiol oil will develop rashes faster. 

Some people have a more severe allergic reaction to poison ivy than others. In such people, even the slightest contact of oil to the skin can cause very serious symptoms that will need immediate medical attention.

Some of the symptoms of severe poison ivy allergy are:

  • Breathing problems
  • Swelling in different parts of the body like the face, mouth, eyes, neck, genitals, etc.
  • Large blisters that leak a lot of fluid

In cases of severe allergies, the rashes may last for around 6 weeks.

Consult your doctor if:

  • Your skin does not stop swelling
  • The rash does not get better within a few weeks
  • Your skin’s reaction is severe or widespread
  • The rash affects your mouth, genitals, and eyes
  • You have a fever greater than 100 degrees
  • Your blisters are oozing pus
  • You suspect that you inhaled poison ivy smoke and now have difficulty breathing

4 Causes

The cause of poison ivy rash is an allergic contact dermatitis from an oily resin called urushoil. Urushoil is very sticky and can be found in the roots, stems and leaves of poison ivy, poison sumac, and poison oak.

You can get the rash from:

  • Direct touch:  When a person comes in direct contact with the leaves, stems, flowers, roots, or berries of the poison ivy plant
  • Touching things that are contaminated with urushoil: If a person walks through a place that has poison ivy plants and the urushoil gets stuck to his/her shoes, this urushoil can then cause rashes on the person if he or she touches the shoe and later touches the face, hands, or any other part of the body. If the object that is contaminated is not cleaned properly, the urushoil can remain on it and cause an allergic reaction even after an extended period of time.
  • Inhaling poison ivy smoke:  Even the smoke coming from burning poison ivy plant can irritate your lungs or nasal passages, which can lead to difficulties in breathing.

Poison ivy is not contagious. You can only get it if you touch an object with urushoil or direct contact from the plants. The fluids oozing from the blisters do not contain urushoil and cannot spread the rash to another person.

5 Making a diagnosis

There are no tests that can help with diagnosis. If you go to the doctor, a physical examination is all that is required.

You do not need medical treatments for a mild rash, but if it is severe, consult your doctor. He or she may refer you to a dermatologist who specializes in skin disorders.

Bring a notebook and list supplements and medications that you are taking.

Some of the questions that you can ask your doctor are:

  • How long will this rash last?
  • Is this contagious?
  • Will it be okay to scratch?
  • Can I pop the blisters?
  • What treatments are available?
  • What can I do to help control the itching?
  • How can I prevent this in the future?

Your doctor will also ask you questions such as:

  • When did you experience symptoms?
  • Have you recently spent time outside?
  • When do you think you could have been exposed to the plant?
  • What are your outdoor activities and hobbies?
  • Have you had this before?
  • How long did it take for the rashes to develop?
  • Have you had any other type of rashes in the past?
  • Have you tried treatments already?

6 Treatment

No treatment is needed for poison ivy rash as it will typically go away on its own after three weeks.

Mild rashes can be treated with self care methods such as:

  • Apply wet cloth on the rashes or soak the affected area of skin with cool water
  • Apply calamine lotion as this will help give some relief from the itching
  • Avoid scratching the rashes as this can lead to skin infections

Your doctor may recommend an oral corticosteroid like prednisone if the rash is severe or an oral antibiotic if there is a bacterial infection.

7 Prevention

To prevent poison ivy rashes, you can do some of the following:

  • Be knowledgeable and learn about poison ivy, poison sumac, and poison oak so that you can avoid the plants and be able to tell the difference between the three. When engaging in outdoor activities like hiking, always try and remain on designated trails. And if camping, make sure that you set up your tent in areas that is free from such plants.
  • Remove plants with a tool by extracting them completely at the roots. Avoid spreading the oils at all costs.
  • Do not burn these plants. The smoke can still affect you.
  • Wear protective clothing such as boots, socks or pants especially if you are hiking or camping.  Always wear eye protection while mowing. Make use of vinyl or leather gloves to protect your hands. Rubber, wool, or cotton gloves are not useful in protecting the hands from this harmful oil.
  • Clean anything that came in contact with urushoil. Do not just put them away without washing since it may still cause a rash. Urushoil can remain on an object for years and cause rashes even after all that time. So if you think your clothes, shoes, jewelry, gardening tools, outdoor gear etc. have come in contact with urushoil, wash thoroughly to avoid any allergic reaction.
  • Apply skin products that are intended as a barrier between the oil resin and your skin. There are many options available that are useful in protecting the skin from absorbing the oil from the poison ivy plant. These creams normally contain an ingredient known as bentoquatam.  Pack a few of these creams while going hiking or camping.
  • Within 30 minutes of exposure, wash the affected area, even your fingertips, to avoid the spread of the rash. Make use of a brush to clean under the nails. Rinse the body often so that the soap or alcohol does not get dried on the skin and worsen the rash.
  • If your pet is contaminated, wear gloves and give them a bath.

8 Alternative and homeopathic remedies

Some of the homeopathic remedies for poison ivy rash include:

  • Arnica: If your skin feels hot and the rash has transparent vesicles
  • Apis: If the rash is red and swelling
  • Bryonia: If the rash is hot and dry
  • Arsenicum album: If the rash is dry and the vesicles are transparent
  • Kali sulphuricum: If the rash is yellow and full of pus
  • Sulphur: The rash is dry and crusty
  • Rhus tox: If your eyes are swollen

These remedies are to be taken under the supervision of healthcare professionals.

9 Lifestyle and coping

Lifestyle modifications are necessary in order to cope with poison ivy rash.

The itchiness of poison ivy rash can lead to difficulty sleeping and if you scratch too hard, your blisters may become infected.

Follow some of these tips to control the itch:

  • Apply calamine lotion
  • Apply corticosteroid cream
  • Soak in a cool water bath containing an oatmeal based bath product 
  • Place a wet and cool compress on the affected area for fifteen to thirty minutes several times a day
  • Drink oral antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) so you can sleep restfully