5 Home Remedies for Poison Ivy Rashes You Should Know

You don't want this plant to touch your skin, but here's what to do if it does.

Whether you're pulling weeds from the garden, taking your dog for a walk, or hiking around—you may run into some poison ivy. Poison ivy grows all over the US and may appear as vines or shrubs, according to the American Skin Association. In addition, about 85% of people are allergic to poison ivy.

So what happens if you come into contact with this plant? You'll likely get a very annoying rash—one that could stick with you for days or weeks, forcing you to search for any relief you can get, according to the American Skin Association.

Here's what you need to know about poison ivy, including its cause, home remedies, and when to seek medical care.

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AdobeStock

How You Get a Poison Ivy Rash

Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac all cause irritation to the skin through a plant oil—technically called urushiol oil—found in the sap of these plants, according to the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Though a rash can occur when plant oil comes in direct contact with the skin, poison ivy rashes can also occur indirectly, if the plant oil comes into contact with clothes, pets, or gardening tools that then come into contact with your skin.

That urushiol oil can stick around on any surface it touches for quite a long time—sometimes even years, per the FDA—which is why it's essential to wash off from your body or anything else it comes into contact with, said Melissa Piliang, MD, a dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic. "You want to wash all the exposed areas [and] everything that may have come in contact with it," said Dr. Piliang. It's important to note, however, that poison ivy rashes aren't contagious, so they can't be passed from person to person or from one part of your body to another by scratching, according to the FDA.

Regarding the look of poison ivy rashes specifically, there are ways to distinguish them from other skin conditions, said Deirdre Hooper, MD, co-founder of Audubon Dermatology in New Orleans. There are three telltale signs, Dr. Hooper said: The rash will be very itchy; it will blister, sometimes with tiny white bumps; and it might be in a linear formation.

Prevention

There are ways to prevent poison ivy rashes. It's important to know what the plant looks like, keep yourself covered in long-sleeved shirts and pants outside, and wash any clothing or objects that may have come into contact with the plant.

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MayoClinic.org

Treatment

Nothing is ever 100% preventable and you may still end up with a poison ivy rash if you're outdoors. Here are a few home remedies that can help.

Wash the Affected Body Part Immediately

Plant oil can linger on any surface—even skin—for a long time, so you want to wash it off ASAP with soap and cool water, according to the FDA. The sooner you do this, the better. The longer it's on your skin, the greater chance that the plant oil can spread to other parts of the body.

On the topic of washing, you'll also want to thoroughly clean any clothing, tools, or even pets that also come into contact with poison ivy, to prevent further contamination, according to the FDA.

Whatever You Do, Don't Itch

Though you can't spread poison ivy rashes to other parts of the body through itching (as long as you've rinsed the plant oil from your skin), you should still avoid scratching, per the FDA. Itching any blisters caused by a poison ivy rash can create an opening for bacteria from your fingernails to seep into your skin and cause an infection.

Use Kitchen Staples

Applying a cool compress to the affected area or soaking in a cool bath can help calm down the itching, per the FDA.

Another option, according to Dr. Piliang, is to try an oatmeal bath (aka, blending some dry oats into a fine powder and adding it to a tub of warm water). Additionally, aluminum acetate can act as an astringent to help relieve pain and itching from the rash, per the FDA.

Try Cortisone Cream or Calamine Lotion

You've probably heard of using calamine lotion for itching before—according to the FDA, that lotion can help dry up any oozing you may be experiencing. Over-the-counter cortisone cream can help tame the rash a bit as well, said Dr. Hopper.

Opt for Oral Antihistamines

Do you know those medications you take when your allergies are acting up? Those—like Benadryl or Claritin—may also help relieve the itch, said Dr. Piliang. But be careful here: You want to avoid applying any type of topical antihistamine cream to the rash since that can actually make it worse, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).

When To Seek Medical Care

While you might be able to relieve your symptoms at home, certain scenarios should prompt a trip to your healthcare provider. If your rash is small and confined to, say, your arm, you might be able to treat it with cortisone cream and train yourself not to scratch it; but if it's all over your body, you might want to see a dermatologist who can prescribe prescription cortisone, which might work better in treating your rash, Dr. Hooper said.

If you're so itchy that you're scratching to the point you're worried about scarring—or you're breaking the skin, which can lead to infection—you shouldn't hesitate to see a dermatologist, according to Dr. Hopper.

If your genitals are affected by poison ivy—yes, that does happen—you should see a specialist, Dr. Piliang said, adding that this can happen if, when going to the bathroom in the woods, you accidentally use a poison ivy leaf as toilet paper. While the rash might not put you in immediate danger, the itchiness might be too much to bear. "Then you really have to go see [a dermatologist]," Dr. Piliang said. "It's very itchy—maybe drive-you-nuts kind of itchy."

Lastly, you should see a healthcare provider if you think you've ingested or inhaled the urushiol oil. "If somebody burns [poison ivy] that oil can become aerosolized and you can inhale it," Dr. Piliang said, explaining that this can cause swelling in the mouth. Any type of swelling—not just swelling in the mouth—should probably prompt a trip to your healthcare provider, per Dr. Hooper.

Dr. Hopper recommended seeing a dermatologist if you can since they're better equipped to recognize and treat a poison ivy rash, which can look like shingles to the untrained eye. You don't necessarily even have to leave your house, Dr. Hooper said, adding that, if you ever need to see a dermatologist quickly, you should try searching "teledermatology near me" for help.

Summary

Poison ivy can cause an annoying and itchy rash that can last for several days or weeks. As irritating as it can be, it's usually not a medical emergency and it can be treated from home. Remedies such as oatmeal baths, cool compresses, calamine lotion, or oral antihistamines are sure to soothe the itching.

If you think you may have ingested or inhaled poison ivy, or the rash has spread to various areas in your body (including your genitals), then you may want to consider seeking medical help.

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