Poison Ivy: Treatment, Prevention, and When to See Your Doctor

Sum­mer is a time for mak­ing mem­o­ries. Whether you and your fam­i­ly are explor­ing the woods, walk­ing on the bike path, or just hang­ing in the back­yard, spend­ing time out­side is a great way to get some sun and spend some time together.

But no one wants those mem­o­ries ruined with a case of poi­son ivy, oak, or sumac.

Poi­son ivy symp­toms can take up to 3 weeks to devel­op, and can look and feel like:

  • A red, bumpy rash 
  • Blis­ters that are filled with fluid
  • Itch­ing and swelling

A rash from a poi­so­nous plant can turn a day of fun into a cou­ple of weeks of itch­ing and scratch­ing. But when is a rash some­thing you can treat at home — and when should you call a physician?

Here’s how you can keep your sum­mer and your skin itch-free.

Step 1: Iden­ti­fy the Plant

Take some time to look at these com­mon rash-caus­ing plants if you don’t know what poi­son ivy, poi­son oak, or poi­son sumac look like. Look­ing at pic­tures of these poi­so­nous plants can help you know how many leaves they have, what col­or they are, and where they may be grow­ing. Know­ing what plants to look out for is a step to take before you actu­al­ly encounter these plants in the first place, and it can save the day and your skin.

Let’s say you’re camp­ing, and your child walks a few yards away from your site and into the brush to pick a pret­ty flower… but you see they walked through some three-leafed plants to get to it. Uh-oh. 

Step 2: Pre­vent the Rash if You Can

In this sit­u­a­tion, you may actu­al­ly be able to pre­vent a rash from spread­ing if you act fast. If you think you’ve come into con­tact with poi­son ivy, oak, or sumac, wash your hands with poi­son plant wash, dish soap, laun­dry deter­gent, or rub­bing alco­hol — whichev­er you have on hand. Wash gen­tly and rinse with cool water (be sure to clean under your nails too). 

Wash­ing your hands in this way with­in 20 min­utes might pre­vent a rash from form­ing and wash­ing your hands with­in 60 min­utes may reduce the rash’s intensity. 

Step 3: If You Missed Iden­ti­fy­ing the Plant — Iden­ti­fy the Rash

It’s not always pos­si­ble to real­ize you’ve touched a poi­so­nous plant in the moment — so the next step is being able to iden­ti­fy what the rash looks like. 

This can be espe­cial­ly con­fus­ing because it can take a while for the rash to show up in the first place. In fact, it can take as long as 3 weeks for a poi­son ivy, oak, or sumac rash to appear if you’ve nev­er had one before. (But if it’s not your first, the rash tends to show up in as lit­tle as 4 to 48 hours.)

A rash from a poi­so­nous plant typ­i­cal­ly looks like red, bumpy patch­es of skin — and of course, they come with an itch. Your rash might also look streaky or have lit­tle black bumps, too. 

Some­times, it might seem like your rash is spread­ing from one part of your body to anoth­er, but this isn’t the case. Like­ly what’s hap­pen­ing is the part of your body that had the most plant oil on it formed a rash first, and patch­es of skin with less plant oil formed later. 

If you’ve nev­er had poi­son ivy before, it can be tough to deter­mine what’s caus­ing your rash. Sched­ule an appoint­ment with your Duly Pri­ma­ry Care Physi­cian or vis­it an Imme­di­ate Care loca­tion to have your poi­son plant rash diagnosed. 

Step 4: Treat the Rash at Home 

If you come into con­tact with poi­son ivy, oak, or sumac, you might be itchy and uncom­fort­able, but you can gen­er­al­ly find relief and treat­ment at home.

Relieve Itch­ing:

  • Apply calamine lotion or hydro­cor­ti­sone cream to your rash. 
  • Use a cool, wet wash­cloth as a com­press on itchy areas of skin.
  • Take an anti­his­t­a­mine aller­gy pill. 
  • Take a cool show­er or a luke­warm bath. 

Pre­vent Infection:

  • Try not to scratch at your rash.
  • Don’t pick open or pop blisters.

These rash­es aren’t con­ta­gious, but if one per­son in your fam­i­ly devel­ops a poi­son ivy rash, it’s like­ly some­one else in the house­hold will too. This isn’t because it’s being passed from per­son to per­son — it’s more like­ly that the poi­son ivy oil got on someone’s clothes and body, and then you washed their clothes, get­ting the oils on your skin as well.

Step 5: Know When to Call a Physician

Poi­son ivy, oak, or sumac symp­toms typ­i­cal­ly clear up on their own with­in 2 weeks if you’ve already had this kind of rash before. If you haven’t, it can take 3 or more weeks to pass. But some­times, see­ing a med­ical provider is an impor­tant step in treat­ing your poi­son ivy rash.

You should see your pri­ma­ry care physi­cian or imme­di­ate care spe­cial­ist if:

  • You aren’t actu­al­ly sure if your rash is caused by poi­son ivy, oak, or sumac. 
  • Your rash doesn’t get bet­ter (or seems to be get­ting worse) after 7 to 10 days. 
  • It seems like your rash might be infected.

Some peo­ple are much more aller­gic to poi­son ivy than oth­ers, and com­ing into con­tact with it can cause a more severe reac­tion. Call 911 or go to the emer­gency room if:

  • Your rash cov­ers a large part of your body — or if it forms around your gen­i­tals, eyes, or mouth.
  • You are hav­ing trou­ble swal­low­ing or breathing.
  • You have a fever.
  • Your face or eyes are swelling.
  • Your rash becomes so itchy that you can’t sleep at night.

Sum­mer can be a time of sun, smiles, and shorts — but it can also come with its own health and safe­ty con­cerns. Tak­ing some time to learn more about them can help you pro­tect your­self and your family.

Whether you want to learn more about how the sun affects your body or how to make sure every­one stays safe at the pool this sum­mer, your Duly providers are here to share the info and resources you need to have a hap­py and healthy summer. 

Health Topics:

  • To provide every patient with the highest quality care in a timely fashion.