5 Home Remedies for Poison Ivy Rashes You Should Know—And When to See a Doctor
You don't want this plant to touch your skin, but here's what to do if it does.
If summertime and warmer weather makes you want to ditch all your inhibitions and head outdoors, protected only by some shades and sunscreen, you're not alone. But if you live in certain areas in the US, you may want to prepare just a tiny bit more so you don't bring anything back with you—or at least know what could happen if you don't
One threat you could come across in your ventures outside is poison ivy. About 85% of people are allergic to the plant and its oils, according to the American Skin Association, and you can be exposed to it during many common summer activities: pulling weeds from your garden, taking your dog for a walk in a wooded area, etc.
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. Here's what you need to know about home remedies for those pesky poison ivy rashes—and when you should call in some medical professionals for help.
RELATED: What Is Poison Ivy?
First: What causes a poison ivy rash, and what does it look like?
So, 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). Poison ivy specifically is found throughout the US, except Alaska, Hawaii, and other parts of the West Coast, and can grow in the form of a vine or a small shrub.
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—sometime 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, Melissa Piliang, MD, a dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health. "You want to wash all the exposed areas [and] everything that may have come in contact with it," she says. 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.
Regarding the look of poison ivy rashes specifically, there are ways to distinguish them from other skin conditions, Deirdre Hooper, MD, cofounder of Audubon Dermatology in New Orleans, tells Health. There are three telltale signs, she says: The rash will be very itchy; it will blister, sometimes with tiny white bumps; and it might be in a linear formation.
So, what are some home remedies for poison ivy?
Though they can be annoying, painful and itchy, the good news is poison ivy rashes can be treated at home, for the most part. While you can do all you can to prevent poison ivy rashes—like knowing what the plant looks like, keeping yourself covered in long sleeves and pants if you're working around it, and and washing anything that may have come into contact with it—you may still come into contact with the plant.
Here are a few options on how to treat poison ivy rashes at home:
Wash the affected body part immediately
According to the FDA, 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. The sooner you do this, the better, per the FDA, since the longer its 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.
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.
That's because, 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, causing further infection.
Use kitchen staples to help relieve the itch
Applying a cool compress to the affected area or soaking in a cool bath can help calm down any inflammation, 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). You can also try putting a quarter of a cup of vinegar in a bath to relieve your symptoms, Dr. Hooper adds. Vinegar can act as an astringent to help relieve pain and itching from the rash, as can aluminum acetate, per the FDA.
Try some cortisone cream or calamine lotion
You've definitely heard of using calamine lotion for itching before—according to the Mayo Clinic, that lotion, along with any other creams containing menthol, can help relieve the itching and discomfort associated with poison ivy rashes.
Over-the-counter cortisone cream can help tame the rash a bit as well, says Dr. Hopper.
Opt for oral antihistamines
You know those medications you take when your allergies are acting up? Those—like Benadryl or Claritin—may also help relieve the itch, says Dr. Piliang. But be careful here: You want to avoid applying any type of topical antihistamine cream to the rash can actually make it worse, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).
When should you medical treatment for a poison ivy rash?
While you might be able to relieve your symptoms at home, certain scenarios should prompt a trip to the doctor's office. 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 says. She says that 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.
If your genitals are affected by poison ivy—yes, that does happen—you should see a specialist, Dr. Piliang says, 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 says. "It's very itchy—maybe drive-you-nuts kind of itchy."
Lastly, you should see a doctor 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 says, explaining that this can cause swelling in the mouth. You can also inadvertently inhale the oil by eating an apple or berries picked outside that had previously been in contact with the poison ivy plant. Any type of swelling—not just swelling in the mouth—should probably prompt a doctor's visit, per Dr. Hooper.
She recommends 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, she says, adding that, if you ever need to see a dermatologist quickly, you should try searching "tele-dermatology near me" for help.
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