Protect Yourself from Allergic Reactions to Poison Ivy

With the weather heating up, it’s time to head outside. There’s spring yard work to be done and plenty of nature to discover.

If it’s warm enough, you may be able to pull on a pair of shorts for your outdoor venture, but don’t let your guard down. You could come into contact with poison ivy in unexpected places, and if you’re allergic to it, you could find yourself paying the price for weeks.

Allergic Reactions to Poison Ivy

(Jlewoldsen / pixabay)

Why do I react to poison ivy?

Poison ivy contains an oil called urushiol. This oil is found in other related plants, including poison oak and poison sumac. None of these plants is actually poisonous, but they are labeled this way because they contain the highly allergenic urushiol oil, which can cause severe skin reactions. These plants won’t hurt you if you’re not allergic to urushiol oil, but about 85% of the population is.

Why does the body react with a rash?

Poison ivy is not inherently harmful. It’s your body’s reaction to the plant that turns things sour. With allergy, your body will encounter a harmless element but perceive it as an insidious threat.

You can’t be too upset at your body for this. After all, it’s in the business of fighting off harmful germs to keep you healthy. But when your body has an allergic reaction, it unleashes its fighting forces for no good reason at all.

Nothing is accomplished by this because there’s no valid enemy to fight off—just a harmless plant. The only one that ends up hurt is you when your immune system unleashes a torrent of chemicals (such as histamine) to keep you “safe.” These chemicals cause inflammation of the skin, which leads to the red, itchy, burning rashes that develop after poison ivy exposure.

What’s the difference between poison ivy, poison oak, and sumac?

These plants are easily confused, but they’re all bad news. While they tend toward different regions (see chart), none of them grows well above 4,000 feet so they’re not a big threat in the Rocky Mountain area. Note that poison sumac is the most allergenic of the three and usually has a red stem. Read about more differences below

  Plant type/size Thorns # of Leaves in Cluster Flowers/Berries Fuzz on vines Fuzz on leaves Leaf shape Location Leaf color
Poison Ivy Climbing vine or shrub (2-4 feet tall) No 3 Green to white flowers and berries Yes No Tear-shaped Across Continental US Yellow to red in fall
Poison Oak Shrub or small tree (up to 3 feet tall) No Usually 3; can be 5, 7, 9 Green to white flowers and berries No Yes (on both sides) and on stems Like oak leaves Western US Yellow to red in fall
Sumac Shrub or small tree (up to 20 feet tall) No Odd-numbered (7-13), with one leaf by itself at the end Green to white flowers and berries No No (though underside may have a little fuzz) Feather-shaped, pointed tip Southern US Yellow to red in fall

What do I do if I am exposed?

If you realize that you have made contact with one of these plants, wash the site immediately with soap and water. If you can’t do this, alcohol wipes can help get the urushiol off of your body.

Be aware that it’s not just direct contact with the plant that can cause the problem. If your cat or dog gets urushiol oil in their fur and you pet them, you could be exposed this way.

Make sure to wash your affected clothing by itself so that the urushiol oil doesn’t transfer to other textiles.

If I’ve been exposed, how soon will the rash appear, and how long will it last?

Rashes tend to start 12-48 hours after exposure and last up to 2-3 weeks. If you’ve been exposed before, your rash may be less severe the second time around and last for less time. Generally, reactions to these plants tend to peak at the week-point, but they can last as long as three weeks.

The severity of the rash usually relates to how much urushiol oil your body was exposed to.

How do I treat the rash?

Most rashes from poisonous plants can be treated at home with cool compresses, topical creams (calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream), and antihistamines. Oatmeal baths can also help relieve the itching. Mix one cup of colloidal oatmeal into a tub full of lukewarm water and soak for 15-20 minutes to get relief from itching.

Am I contagious?

No, even if someone else touches your rash, the rash won’t transfer to them. It is only contact with urushiol oil that causes the rash.

When do I need to see a doctor?

If your skin shows signs of infection (swelling, pus, oozing sores) or if you develop a fever, contact your physician.

How do I protect myself?

If you are heading to an area where there could be poison ivy (or other related plants), wear gloves, long sleeves and long pants tucked into socks or boots. In addition, you can apply bentoquatam lotion as an extra layer of protection. This lotion is formulated to create a barrier between your skin and urushiol oil.

What can I do if I find one of these plants in my yard?

Some people try to burn them, but this can cause problems of its own, releasing chemicals from the urushiol that can irritate the eyes, nose, and lungs. If these chemicals enter your lungs and irritate them, you may need to see your doctor about prescribing steroids.

Some herbicides can kill these so-called poison plants, but avoid touching the dead plants as they can still contain active urushiol oil. You can also dig out the plants if you are careful to cover your skin properly and dispose of the dead plants in plastic bags. Make sure to remove the root, not just the exposed plant. Wash your gloves and any garden tools that may have come in contact with these plants.

If you develop persistent skin rashes unrelated to poison ivy, contact AllergyEasy. Eczema and hives are among the most common manifestations of allergy. If you’re dealing with them on an ongoing basis, AllergyEasy can help you stop them at the source with sublingual immunotherapy. This simple, safe, convenient treatment method allows you to enjoy the same type of relief you get from allergy shots but with pain-free, under-the-tongue allergy drops that can be administered in the comfort of home.

About The Author

Stuart H. Agren, M.D.

Stuart H. Agren, M.D. completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Utah and went on to earn his Doctor of Medicine from Tulane University School of Medicine in 1974. He completed additional training at L.D.S. Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah and then established his private medical practice starting in 1975. Dr. Agren completed a mini-residency in Industrial Medicine at the Robert Johnson School of Medicine at Rutgers University and also completed training to become a certified Medical Review Officer.

Dr. Agren was the Medical Director at TRW and McDonnell Douglas in Mesa, Arizona and at Stauffer Chemical and Kennecott Copper in Salt Lake City, Utah. He also served as an adjunct faculty member at Arizona State University.

In his private medical practice, Dr. Agren specialized in family practice and allergy. In his work as a private practice allergist, he was one of the first doctors in the country to prescribe sublingual immunotherapy to his patients as an alternative to subcutaneous immunotherapy (allergy shots). He has also been a trailblazer in the field of food allergy treatment and research, developing a program to treat multiple food allergies simultaneously using sublingual immunotherapy. Dr. Agren has been featured on local CBS, NBC, and ABC news affiliates and won the peer-nominated “Top Doc” award from Phoenix Magazine.

After 20 years in private practice, Dr. Agren became the Founder and President of AllergyEasy, which helps primary care physicians around the country offer allergy testing and sublingual immunotherapy treatment to their patients. Over 200 physicians in over 32 states use the AllergyEasy program to help their patients overcome environmental and food allergies and asthma.