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5 thing you need to know about poison Ivy

Updated: Apr 5, 2020

Spring is here. And as the weather starts warming up, more and more people will be heading outdoors.

There are numerous fun family things to do as the cold of winter fades. Hiking is a fun family activity with many perks such as getting out of the house, nice views, fresh air and exposure to nature.

The more time you spend outside, the higher the risk of exposure to some of the elements. One of the more common things we come into contact with are the plants. Some of these plants can cause an allergic reaction which can be quite annoying. It is important to be aware of these potential exposures as you head out to enjoy the great outdoors.

Here we will discuss a common contact dermatitis, which is an itchy skin reaction caused by poison ivy.

1- What causes the skin reaction?

Direct contact between your skin and any irritating or allergy inducing substance can cause contact dermatitis.

Contact dermatitis is an umbrella term that includes the skin reaction to exposure to poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. These plants are responsible for more cases of allergic contact dermatitis than all other plants combined.

Although we are specifically talking about poison ivy here, the skin reaction is very similar to poison oak and poison sumac.

Everyone is at risk for developing a reaction to poison ivy. How bad the reaction you have is age dependent. The severity of the reaction generally decreases with age, especially in people who have had mild reactions in the past.

These plants contain urushiol. It is a light, colorless oil that is found in the fruit, leaves, stem, roos and the sap of the plant. When this compound is exposed to air it turns brown and eventually leaves small black spots on the plant.

Exposure occurs through several mechanisms. Touching the sap of the plant or rubbing against it. Urushiol can live on clothing and other surfaces such as garden tools. Bush fires that contain this plant can cause a reaction if the smoke is inhaled.

Poison ivy (and others) are not seasonal and you should try to avoid these plants during all four seasons to reduce the risk of plant induced contact dermatitis.

2- How will you know if you have been exposed?

Nearly half of people who have contact with urushiol will develop symptoms of poison ivy dermatitis. The severity varies but some of the common symptoms include itching, skin redness and small blisters.

...poison ivy is NOT contagious and cannot be spread from person to person.

The symptoms can occur in a few hours or as late as several days after exposure. Symptoms usually start with itching, redness and blistering. It is important to note that the fluid from these blisters do NOT spread the rash. Also, poison ivy is NOT contagious and cannot be spread from person to person. The skin changes you see is the body's reaction to the plant.

3- How is poison ivy dermatitis diagnosed?

Diagnosis is based on skin exam and symptoms. No other tests are needed. Treatment is the same regardless of the type of plant that has caused the exposure.

4- How to identify the plant

For poison ivy, each leaf of the plant has three leaflets. We have all heard the phrase "Leaves of three, leave them be." The edges of the leaves can be smooth or notched and depending on geography, poison ivy can be a shrub or a vine.

In general, poison ivy and oak have three green leaves. Poison sumac has five, seven, or more leaflets per leaf that angle upward toward the top of the stem.

5- What are the treatment options?

Left untreated, poison ivy generally goes away in a couple of weeks. However, there are some treatments that may alleviate the itching and discomfort.

The most important thing you can do is avoid scratching it, it makes the itch worse!

Steroid creams can be helpful but the over the counter low potency creams are not effective. You will need prescription strength.

Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) may be helpful for symptoms relief. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends adding a cup of sodium bicarbonate to bath water for symptom relief.

There is some evidence that adding oatmeal to a lukewarm bath and soaking for 30 minutes may provide symptom relief as well.

Generally speaking, antihistamines and antibiotics have no role in the treatment of poison ivy.

Applying calamine lotion to relieve the itching is probably one of the most common modalities used to treat poison ivy.

For blisters that are leaking fluid Burow’s solution or Domeboro may help relieve the rash.

If symptoms are very severe, or the rash covers a large portion of the body, you may need steroid pills or injections. If your rash is this bad, it is best to have it looked at by your doctor.

For a very severe rash where most of your body is covered or it is on your face or genitals, there is a lot of swelling, if there is pus or other signs of infection or the rash persists for more than a couple of weeks, you need to see a doctor to have this evaluated.

The best treatment to prevent poison ivy dermatitis in the first place. These plants are around all year including the winter months. So it is important to wear protective clothing. If you do come in contact with the plant, remove any contaminated clothing and wash your skin with soap and water as soon as possible.

The content on the website is not intended nor recommended as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your own physician regarding any medical questions or conditions.

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