The fun of being outdoors on a hot summer day can often be rudely interrupted by the ultimate party pooper, poison ivy. No, we’re not talking about Batman’s Poison Ivy that could stop a man’s heart with one kiss. We’re talking about the good ol’ green plant. So in order to make sure your last remaining summer days are awesome and “itch-free”, we’re offering a really quick lesson on poison ivy (and its little buddies, poison oak and poison sumac), ways to prevent becoming its next victim and treatment advice just in case. Enjoy and if you have any great poison ivy stories/adventures please share in the comment section below.
What are poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac?
Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are plants that produce an oil (urushiol) that causes an allergic reaction when it touches your skin. All parts of the plant contain this oil including the roots, stems, and leaves. Some of the unpleasant symptoms of this allergic reaction include rash, swelling, itching, and possible bumps, patches, and streaking or weeping blisters.
Who is at risk?
Any person who works or plays outdoors is at risk of coming into contact with these plants (see images above). Exposure usually occurs in the spring or summer, when people are more active outdoors: hiking, playing sports, camping, etc. In addition to direct contact, indirect contact via animals, tools or clothing can transfer or spread the oil. Also be warned that inhaling smoke from burning a poison ivy, oak or sumac plant could lead to sudden wheezing or a severe asthma attack.
How do I treat it?
If you become exposed to one of these poisonous plants:
- Carefully remove and wash your clothes and shoes.
- Wash skin with rubbing alcohol, dish soap, or poison plant wash (e.g. Zanfel) and LOTS of water.
- Once the oil is washed off of the skin, the rash is not contagious and cannot be spread, even if the blisters are weeping. Remember it is the oil that causes the reaction.
- Scrub under your nails with a brush to ensure all oil is removed.
To soothe the itch you can:
- Apply calamine lotion or anti-itch ointment.
- Bathe with ½ cup of cornstarch or oatmeal.
- Apply an over the counter 1% hydrocortisone cream
- Take an ORAL antihistamine, such as Benadryl, to decrease itching. Do NOT use antihistamine containing lotions or creams as the drug can be absorbed when spread across wide areas of skin.
- As hard as it may be, do not scratch the irritated area! Scratching can lead to infection.
How can I prevent an exposure?
- Wear long sleeves, pants, and gloves (if working with hands).
- Know what these plants look like so you can avoid them.
- Ivy Block® skin cream may offer some protection from the urushiol.
- Wash camping gear, fishing gear, tools etc after use since they can carry active urushiol for up to 5 years.
- Do not burn unknown plants or brush piles that may contain these plants.
- Wash pets that have been exposed. Make sure to wear gloves when doing so.
Be sure to seek medical attention if you develop symptoms from inhaling smoke from these burning plants or if you develop a rash that spreads to the face, eyes or genitals as this may require prescription medications.
You should also contact a doctor if you have other severe symptoms such as fever, pus, or headache because these are signs of an infection and may require antibiotics.
Plant exposures are a frequent reason people call the Illinois Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222. IPC specialists are here around the clock to assist you with any questions about hazardous plants or any other poisoning concerns. Visit our website at illinoispoisoncenter.org for more information on poisonous plants including lists of poisonous and non-poisonous varieties.
Cullen McChristian, PharmD Candidate, Miguel Razo, IPC Call Center Specialist and Tony Burda, IPC Call Center Specialist