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How to Prevent and Treat Poison Ivy

Photo: 20th Century Fox

Outdoor activities like hiking and picnicking have become a lot more popular this summer, in large part due to the coronavirus. Hiking with friends makes social distancing easier, and because it’s outside, where droplets disperse more easily, it’s pretty safe. But any time you step out into the great outdoors, you run the risk of getting poison ivy. According to Dr. Sapna Palep, founder of Spring Street Dermatology in New York City, reactions to poison ivy usually develop anywhere from 12 to 48 hours after exposure and last between two and three weeks. The itchy, blistery rash you get from poison ivy is caused by an allergic reaction to the plant’s oily resin called urushiol. “Recognizing poison ivy is very important if you’re going to avoid exposure,” says Joe Alton, a doctor and member of the Wilderness Medical Society. He describes poison-ivy leaves as having three leaflets that appear reddish in the spring, green in the summer months, and yellow, orange, or red in the fall. The best way to avoid getting a poison-ivy rash is to avoid contact with the leaves, stems, and roots of the plant. We talked to Palep, Baird, Alton, and three other experts to find out how to prevent getting exposed to poison ivy, and, if you do get exposed, how to get rid of the itch as soon as possible.

How to prevent exposure

Even if you know what you’re looking for, you can’t spot every poison-ivy plant. Whenever you know you’ll be around low or heavy brush, Kristin M. Baird, dermatologist and owner of the Dermatology Center of the Rockies in Longmont, Colorado, suggests protecting your skin by wearing long sleeves, pants, socks, and closed-toed shoes.

In addition to covering up, both Baird and Palep recommend applying an over-the-counter product like IvyX to create a protective barrier between your skin and poison ivy’s harmful oils.

How to prevent a rash

“It takes the oily irritant in poison ivy about ten to 30 minutes to bind to skin,” says Alton, so if you think you’ve touched poison ivy, time is of the essence. “Rinse your skin with cold water right away, then wash it with soap and water,” says Palep. Cold water is key, since hot water, he says, can cause the urushiol oil to spread on your skin. All of our experts also advise washing the clothes you were wearing right away, as urushiol can stick to them and other objects. “Handle contaminated clothes carefully so that you don’t transfer the urushiol oil, as it can live up to a year on clothes and contaminate others that touch it,” Palep says.

Any soap that breaks down oils, including dish soap, will work to remove urushiol from your skin, but this cleanser is designed specifically for poison ivy. It will also help remove urushiol from contaminated tools, clothing, and even your dog, whose fur can be a vector for further contamination.

Baird also notes that regular old rubbing alcohol can help remove the urushiol and decrease discomfort, since it dries out any oozing: “These alcohol prep wipes make cleaning affected areas simple and mess free.”

How to treat the rash

Whatever you do, don’t scratch. “Scratching can break the skin and cause an infection,” Alton says. All of the experts we spoke with recommend applying a cool compress to reduce itchiness and inflammation. Julie DeMaio, a clinical herbalist, suggests avoiding hot showers and sun exposure. “When you’re hot or flushed, blood rises to the surface of the skin and makes the itch worse,” she says. Of course, if you develop a fever, have difficulty breathing, if the rash doesn’t improve over time, or if you get a rash in or on your eyes, mouth, or genitals, see a doctor ASAP.

If you’ve tried a cold compress and you’re still super-itchy, both Alton and Christina Weng, a dermatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard, suggest applying a layer of this old standby to dry out any oozing and relieve itchiness.

Alton and Weng also mention that taking a cool bath using soothing oatmeal-based products is a good option. This treatment from skin-care brand Aveeno is formulated to relieve poison ivy, poison sumac, poison oak, as well as other itchy things like chicken pox, insect bites, and eczema.

Chances are if you have poison ivy growing in your yard, you also have a plant called jewelweed nearby. Take advantage of it. According to DeMaio, jewelweed has historically been used to treat all stages of poison-ivy rash, and it can be identified by its small bright-orange flowers. DeMaio says to simply crush a big handful and apply to the affected area, but if you aren’t 100 percent sure you are using the right plant, you can play it safe and pick up an itch-reducing skin salve made with jewelweed, like this one.

Baird recommends this salve, which contains jewelweed and other natural ingredients like calendula oil and plantain-leaf extract. She suggests applying it generously to the affected area, after washing with soap and water, to relieve itching and discomfort.

Alton and Christopher Hanifin, Ed.D., PA-C, department chair and assistant professor at Seton Hall University, recommend over-the-counter topical corticosteroids like this one to stop the itch. Hanifin calls it “the best remedy.”

If none of the above do the trick, or if your poison-ivy rash itches so much it keeps you from sleeping, Hanifin and Alton recommend taking an over the counter oral antihistamine like Benadryl to finally get some relief.

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How to Get Rid of Poison Ivy