Poison ivy dermatitis occurs as a result of contact with urushiol, an oil that is found in all parts of the poison ivy plant. Although some people are not sensitive to this oil and never develop symptoms, around 85 percent of people will experience a rash upon contact with poison ivy.
There are several effective poison ivy remedies that can be used to treat symptoms, and many steps that can be taken to prevent exposure to urushiol.
Recognizing poison ivy
Recognizing and avoiding poison ivy in all four seasons is the most important step that can be taken in reducing the risk of poison ivy dermatitis.
Here are some tips to help in the identification of the plant.
- each leaf has three leaflets
- leaf edges may be smooth or notched
- in the Northern and Western United States and Canada, poison ivy is a shrub. In the East, Midwest, and South, it’s a vine
The leaves change also color with the seasons:
- spring – reddish with yellow-green flowers
- summer – green
- fall – orange, red, or yellow with off-white berries
- winter – leaves fall off, and the vine appears “hairy”
Ten poison ivy home remedies
While poison ivy rash eventually clears up on its own, the itching associated with the rash can be difficult to bear, and can even impact on sleep.
The following poison ivy remedies may provide relief from symptoms:
1. Rubbing alcohol
Rubbing alcohol can remove the urushiol oil from the skin, helping to minimize discomfort.
People should do this as soon as possible after contact with poison ivy, particularly within the first 10 minutes of exposure. If going camping or hiking, it is a good idea to carry alcohol wipes at all times.
The U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advise that urushiol can remain on the surface of most items that come into contact with poison ivy, sometimes for years, unless treated with rubbing alcohol or water.
2. Shower or bathe
Thoroughly wash the skin, and under the fingernails, with plain soap and lukewarm water to remove plant oils. Water can be used instead of rubbing alcohol, although it is best to use alcohol first and then shower or bathe.
It’s believed that showering within 60 minutes of exposure may help limit the spread and severity of the rash.
Wash anything that comes into contact with the plant. People should wear rubber gloves when doing this.
3. Cold compress
Cool, wet compresses can help to reduce itching and inflammation.
To make a compress, run a clean washcloth under cold water. Wring off excess water. Apply to the skin for 15 to 30 minutes. Repeat this several times a day as needed.
Some people find relief by soaking the compress in an astringent liquid to further reduce swelling and itching. Examples of astringent liquids include aluminum acetate, apple cider vinegar, and chilled black tea.
4. Resist scratching the skin
Scratching the skin can lead to an infection. It may also cause blisters to burst, which may then become infected.
Blisters that do open should be left alone, as the skin covering the wound can provide protection and reduce the risk of infection.
Unscrubbed fingernails may also contain traces of urushiol, which can be transmitted to the skin through scratching. This can lead to further itching and a more severe poison ivy rash.
5. Topical lotions and creams
Over-the-counter creams and lotions may help to relieve the symptoms of a poison ivy rash.
Several lotions that can help relieve the symptoms of a mild poison ivy rash are available without a prescription.
Over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams and calamine lotion are two products commonly used to reduce itching and swelling.
The FDA advise that products containing zinc acetate, zinc carbonate, and zinc oxide treat the oozing and weeping caused by poison ivy. Users should always apply these products as per the instructions on the label.
Aloe vera gel, taken from the aloe vera plant, is another soothing topical poison ivy remedy.
6. Oral antihistamines
Oral antihistamines lessen the severity of allergic reactions, thereby reducing itching and rash. Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) is one example that may also help some people sleep better through their symptoms.
It is not advisable to apply antihistamine cream to the rash, as it may make itching worse.
7. Oatmeal bath
Adding oatmeal or an oatmeal-based product to a lukewarm bath is a simple poison ivy remedy. Soaking in the tub for up to 30 minutes may provide symptom relief.
8. Bentonite clay
Bentonite clay is a popular natural clay used in a variety of beauty and personal care products.
Some people report relief from poison ivy rash after applying a paste of bentonite clay and water to the affected area.
Research suggests that using a modified version of bentonite clay (quaternium-18 bentonite) effectively prevents or reduces the allergic contact dermatitis caused by poison ivy and poison oak.
9. Baking soda
Also known as sodium bicarbonate, baking soda is a salt that is mainly used in baking. However, it is also used as a natural cleaning agent and as a home remedy for various ailments.
Adding a cup of baking soda to the tub is recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology for relief from poison ivy rash.
In addition to natural and home-based poison ivy remedies, medications are available to offer symptom relief. Steroid drugs, such as prednisone, can be prescribed by a doctor to ease itching and inflammation.
These steroid medications come in a variety of forms including:
Antibiotics may sometimes be necessary if an infection develops due to scratching the skin or picking at blisters.
When to see a doctor
Most cases of poison ivy dermatitis clear up without medical intervention. However, it is important to see a doctor if the rash:
- is near the eyes, mouth, or genitals
- covers a large portion of the body (over 25 percent of the skin)
- does not improve after 7 to 10 days
- contains pus or soft yellow scabs
Severe reactions with the following symptoms require emergency medical treatment:
- difficulty breathing
- difficulty swallowing
- rash near or in the mouth
- swelling of the eyes
Avoiding poison ivy rash
Poison ivy dermatitis is easier to prevent than it is to treat.
Recognizing and avoiding the plant is the best way to prevent poison ivy rash. However, the following tips can also help:
- Wear protective clothing. Cover up when outdoors, or in areas where poison ivy is likely to grow. PVC gloves or thick gardening gloves can be useful, but thin latex gloves may allow the oil to penetrate through to the skin.
- Wear barrier substances. Certain products, usually containing bentoquatam, are available to reduce the symptoms of poison ivy contact if applied before exposure. These substances must be washed off within a few hours of exposure to the plant.
- Wash anything that comes into contact with the plant. The oil from poison ivy can linger for years. Anything that touches it must be thoroughly washed with soap and water to avoid contact with the skin.
- Remove poison ivy from the garden. It can be a challenging and dangerous job as all parts of the plant – even the roots – contain urushiol. Professional removal may be the best option. Never burn poison ivy as the smoke can cause severe reactions. Even the dead plant can cause contact dermatitis.
- Prepare a poison ivy kit. Keeping several poison ivy treatments on hand -including rubbing alcohol, water bottles, and soap – can allow for a speedy response to exposure, thus reducing the severity of symptoms.