As soon as the weather turns warm, we find ourselves spending more time outdoors whether pursuing outdoor adventures like hiking and playing sports or working in our yards and gardens preparing for spring. Weeds and other suspicious looking plants begin popping up everywhere. The last few weeks we are seeing many patients with widespread poison ivy, and similar rashes.
Most of us are aware of the age old “leaves of three, let it be!” rule. However hard we try to avoid these pesky plants, we can find ourselves waking up in the morning with that annoying itchy tell-tale rash, medically speaking, contact dermatitis.
Poison Ivy can grow as vines or as small shrubs. The entire plant is considered poisonous but especially the leaves. When you rub against the leaves of the plant (this goes for poison sumac and poison oak as well), they release an oily toxin (urushiol) which is what actually causes the rash on your body. You don’t necessarily even need to have touched the plant yourself to catch the rash. You can catch it by coming into contact with pets, clothing and tools that have been exposed to the oil of the plant. Generally speaking, the rash will occur within 12-48hrs but occasionally can be seen days later. About half of us are sensitive to poison ivy.
FAQs: Questions I get from my patients when they come to see me with, “Poison Ivy”
Oh no! I just touched the plant what should I do?
Immediately wash your skin with soap and water to decrease the poisonous oil (urushoil) from spreading on your skin. Wash your clothing and everything the plant came into contact with. The oil will remain on these items and will continue to spread the rash to anyone who comes into contact with it.
It’s so itchy and I just want to scratch it!
Don’t scratch! Poison ivy is so itchy but by scratching the rash or the blisters you could cause an infection from bacteria under your fingernails and on your surrounding skin. Leave it alone!
I need some relief!
Baths: Some people find relief in oatmeal baths that can be homemade or purchased at your local drug store. A bath with a cup of baking soda can also be very soothing.
Cool compresses: You can make your own cool compress by submerging a washcloth in cool water, wringing it out and applying it to the rash. Wash off with soap first.
Ointments and creams: Hydrocortisone cream, Calamine lotion and Zinc Oxide are safe to apply to the rash and can also provide some relief.
Medications: Antihistamines, such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine), Claritin (Loratadine) or Zyrtec (Cetirizine) can be used for the itching but will have no effect on the rash.
Why not use steroids every time?
Many people do need steroids for relief, since the rash is so widespread. Steroids (by mouth usually) are the only medication that will make the rash go away sooner. Sometimes milder rashes will respond to stronger steroid creams (by prescription).
Steroids are typically safe, but have many side effects that should prompt a discussion with your clinician prior to starting a course of steroids. Some typical side-effects are insomnia, mood swings, water retention and increased blood sugar.
I think it’s spreading! or Gross, can I catch it from someone else?
Poison ivy rash doesn’t spread, but it may seem like it. The rash is an allergic reaction to the oil (urushoil). Only by exposure to this oil will you get the rash. The oil can be absorbed at different rates on your body where it was exposed thus causing the rash to occur at different times. Also if you become re-exposed by contact with clothes or bedsheets, fingernails (don’t scratch!) or other objects on which the oil remains, you may develop new areas of the rash. You cannot spread it to another person unless they come into contact with the oil (urushoil). If the blisters on the rash break, this will not spread the rash. Remember, the rash/blisters is an allergic reaction, the oil isn’t hanging around in the blisters, it has been absorbed into your skin.
When will this #$@&%! Rash be gone?
It generally takes several weeks for the rash to disappear. The treatment methods above can help to ease the symptoms of the rash and help to dry it out, but in general they do not speed up the process. I know I said it before but, don’t scratch! This can prolong the duration of the rash due to a secondary infection.
Uh Oh, I think something else is going on here………
Please see a clinician if you experience any of the following:
- You develop a fever or other symptoms such as headache, body aches, cough…etc.
- You develop a rash on more than 1/4th of your skin area
- The area develops pus, yellow scabs, more redness or tenderness
- The rash becomes worse after you have attempted the above methods
- It spreads to your mouth, face, eyes or genital area
- It doesn’t improve in a few weeks
Ok, If this isn’t poison ivy then what is it?
Poison Ivy dermatitis is more common than than all other rashes. But, not all rashes in the summer are from poison ivy. Come on in and show us your rash. We love a good mystery. The good thing about rashes is that they are easy to share, and show off. Whether it’s poison ivy or oak, or possibly another rash, such as shingles, we’ll help you get better faster, it is always our pleasure!
Have any questions about poison ivy, or other rashes? Feel free to email, call or come in anytime.