As summer approaches and the landscape turns greener, so too do the leaves from poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. When the oil from these plants touches the skin, most people (about 85%) develop an itchy, blistering rash. A reaction often does not start until 12 to 72 hours after you come into contact with the oil. Although the rash itself is not contagious, the oil can spread to other areas of the body and from person to person if not quickly washed off after touching the plants. Most people see the rash go away in a few weeks.
If you have a reaction to the oil, you can have these signs and symptoms:
- Itchy skin
- Redness or red streaks
- An outbreak of small or large blisters, often forming streaks or lines
- Crusting skin (after blisters burst)
If you have a serious reaction, including trouble breathing, the rash covers most of your body, or swelling, especially on the face, you should see a doctor right away.
If you are not experiencing a serious reaction, dermatologists recommend the following tips for treating the rash and easing the itch:
- Immediately rinse your skin with lukewarm, soapy water. If you can rinse your skin immediately after touching poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac, you may be able to rinse off some of the oil. This helps ensure that the oil does not spread to other areas of the body and cause additional rashes.
- Wash your clothing. Thoroughly wash all of the clothes you were wearing when you came into contact with the poisonous plant. The oil can stick to clothing, and if it touches your skin, it can cause another rash.
- Wash everything that may have the oil on its surface. Besides clothing, the oil from poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac can stick to many surfaces, including gardening tools, golf clubs, camping gear, leashes and even a pet’s fur. Be sure to rinse your pet’s fur, and wash tools and other objects with warm, soapy water.
- Do not scratch, as scratching can cause an infection. If your rash has pus or oozes, see your doctor.
- Leave blisters alone. If blisters open, do not remove the overlying skin, as the skin can protect the raw wound underneath and prevent infection.
- Take short, lukewarm baths. To ease the itch, take short, lukewarm baths in a colloidal oatmeal preparation, which you can buy at your local pharmacy. You can also draw a bath and add one cup of baking soda to the running water. Taking short, cool showers may also help.
- Consider calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream. Apply calamine lotion to skin that itches. If you have a mild case, a hydrocortisone cream or lotion may also help.
- Apply cool compresses to the itchy skin. You can make a cool compress by wetting a clean washcloth with cold water and wringing it out so that it does not drip. Then, apply the cool cloth to the itchy skin.
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Written by: Steven Gately, PharmD candidate 2018