If you’ve ever had a red, itchy rash pop up a day or two after spending time outside, you know how annoying and painful poison ivy can be.
Since the rash often takes 12 to 72 hours to appear – and there’s not a lot you can do to relieve the itch once it starts – knowing how to avoid poison ivy is your best defense.
What Causes Poison Ivy Rash?
The poison ivy rash is caused by direct contact with urushiol – an oil that exists in the plant leaves and vine. While you’ve probably heard the phrase ‘leaves of three, let it be,’ it’s important to note that the oil can be most powerful on the vines, making poison ivy a year-round nuisance.
Poison ivy is not contagious, but because the rash takes a couple days to appear, it sometimes seems like it is.
Poison Ivy Prevention
The best way to prevent poison ivy is to avoid contact with the oils.
- Learn what poison ivy looks like so you can identify – and avoid – the plant and vines.
- Wear protective clothing whenever you may come into content with poison ivy .
- Wash thoroughly with soap and water after being outdoors.
- Poison ivy oil can be spread by touching clothing, animal hair or gardening tools that have oil on them.
- Residual oil can stay on hard surfaces for up to five years – so be sure to wash these items well!
Finding Relief from Poison Ivy
Unfortunately, there is no proven, effective treatment for poison ivy. “Over-the-counter medications like oral anti-histamines, calamine lotion and hydrocortisone cream can help with itching – but they provide only temporary relief,” explains Eugene Leung, MD, a physician with WakeMed Urgent Care. In severe cases, steroids may be needed, but these are also not 100 percent effective.
It may seem impossible – but DO NOT SCRATCH the affected area. This will cause further inflammation and can introduce bacteria, which can lead to infection.
When to Seek Medical Care for Poison Ivy
It’s a good idea to go to a doctor or urgent care facility if your poison ivy rash covers a large part of your body, causes severe pain, is very uncomfortable or lingers for more than a couple of weeks.
Always seek emergency care if your body’s histamine response causes a severe reaction – such as trouble breathing, advises Dr. Leung.
In most cases, the poison ivy rash will go away within a week or two – so when the itching is at its worst, try to remember that it won’t slow you down for long!
About Eugene Leung, MD
Dr. Leung is a physician with WakeMed Urgent Care.