Avail Dermatology

What to Do if You Get Poison Ivy

It’s ruined many fishing, hunting, and camping trips. It’s the bane of hikers and picnickers across Georgia. And every fall, as folks venture out of the air conditioning and back outside to enjoy fresher weather, they’re bound to trample through its leafy territory.

Poison ivy!

The best thing to do with poison ivy is to avoid it. Follow these tips for spotting it and keep your distance:

  • These smooth leaves always come in clusters of three.
  • In the fall, they turn from glossy green to red with yellowing veins.
  • Individual clusters of three leaves grow first from one side of the vine; the next cluster will grow further along and to the other side of the vine. These clusters of three never grow side-by-side or straight across from each other.
  • The vines have hairy-looking roots that climb up trees and other structures.

Touching the leaves, stems, vines or even roots of poison ivy brings you into contact with the plant’s misery-inducing urushiol. In fact, touching clothing that has urushiol on it can bring out the symptoms too.

Urushiol is a chemical produced by the plant. It triggers a powerful allergic skin reaction in the large majority of people when it gets on the skin. It is a very reactive compound that actually chemically binds permanently to the skin surface within 20 minutes. Once that has happened, it can no longer be washed off.

This also runs contrary to the widely held belief that contacting the skin where the rash has broken out, even days later, can spread the poison ivy to other areas or other people. As long as it’s been longer than 20 minutes, or after washing the skin, the urushiol can no longer spread to other surfaces. The reason that it seems like the poison ivy can be spread is that areas that get a smaller dose of urushiol at the initial exposure take longer to break out. Thus, it can look like the rash is spreading.

Symptoms of Poison Ivy

Anywhere from a few hours to a few days after contact, you might notice the following symptoms:

  • Intensely itchy skin
  • Redness and blistering, sometimes forming in lines
  • Hives
  • Swelling

Poison Ivy Treatment

If you’ve been tagged by poison ivy and you know it, thoroughly wash the affected area or shower off in soapy, lukewarm water as soon as you can. Don’t touch anybody else before washing off, or you could pass the nasty urushiol on to them as well.

Put all of the clothing that may have come into contact with the poison ivy directly into the washing machine, being careful not to touch it too much, or let anybody else touch it. In fact, wash off any other surfaces or items that may have been in contact with the plant. After that:

  • Do not scratch. It’s hard, but necessary to avoid oozing blisters and further infection.
  • Take frequent lukewarm baths with baking soda or colloidal oatmeal.
  • Use cool, wet compresses to relieve the itching.
  • For mild cases, apply over the counter itch medications: hydrocortisone cream is probably the most effective.
  • Antihistamines like Benadryl can take the edge off the itch, but beware of sedation: don’t drink, drive, or operate machinery after taking

More serious cases need serious attention. If large areas of skin are involved, the itching is severe enough to interfere with the ability to sleep or work, or there are suggestions of infection (progressive redness, swelling, soreness, drainage), then seek medical attention. Dermatologists are ideally suited to treat this condition. They have access to treatments for even the worst cases: for example, cortisone “shots” that can rapidly reduce the itch and rash.

How Long Until I Stop Itching?

Most cases of poison ivy should clear up within a week to 10 days. If the struggle lasts longer than that, or if large or sensitive areas of the body are affected, please contact Avail Dermatology at 770-251-5111 for help.