Poison Ivy 101: Mercy Providers Urge Precaution, Offer Tips

July 20, 2023

It’s the time of year when many people enjoy getting outdoors and working in the garden or landscaping around their home. Unfortunately, it’s also an easy time to come into contact with poison ivy, poison oak and other plants that can cause a reaction such as an itchy, painful rash, skin redness, blisters and swelling.

What should you do if you think you’ve been exposed? Washing any exposed surfaces on your body may prevent a breakout. You should also wash any clothing that may have come into contact with the plant. A rash itself is not contagious, but oils from the poisonous plants are and can transfer from your skin or clothing to others. Be especially mindful if a child (or even a pet) has come into contact with a poisonous plant, as they can also spread the oils. Remember, too, that even dead plants can still have irritating oils on them, so be cautious anytime you may be handling plants.

Mercy doctor's coat Poison ivy, poison oak and other poisonous plants can be difficult to spot. Use precaution when you may encounter the plants.

If you are exposed, symptoms can appear anywhere from 12 hours to three days after exposure, said Ashley Tucker, family nurse practitioner with Mercy Clinic Family Medicine - Greenwood, Arkansas.

“A rash can cause a great deal of discomfort and often is very painful,” Tucker said. “Poisonous plants can be found in nature year-round, not just during the summer, and many people don’t realize they’re allergic to certain plants until symptoms appear.”

Tucker offers these tips to care for a rash:

*  Apply a cool compress to the affected areas.

* Use a topical corticosteroid ointment or calamine lotion to help soothe the itch.

* Try an antihistamine such as Benadryl.

* Take a cool bath that includes ¼ cup baking soda or oatmeal (or OTC oatmeal powders).

* Avoid going outdoors in the heat, as it can aggravate the itching.

Symptoms can last anywhere from 1-3 weeks. If your symptoms persist, a doctor may prescribe a steroid such as Prednisone or an antibiotic if an infection develops. 

When to go to urgent care: Severe cases of poison ivy reaction may include swelling, including around the eyes; rash on genitals or face; and trouble breathing. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, visit the ER or stop by the nearest Mercy-GoHealth Urgent Care location. 

Mercy doctor's coat Ashley Tucker, family nurse practitioner with Mercy Clinic Primary Care - Greenwood, Arkansas, says controlling the itch associated with a rash from a poisonous plant is the best way to avoid infection.

What NOT to do: Don’t use rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide or bleach on the rash as it can make the irritation worse. And don’t scratch! Scratching can delay the healing process and may cause an infection to develop.

“We’ve seen poison ivy linger in some patients because an infection has developed due to scratching,” Tucker said. “Controlling the itch is going to be the best way to promote healing and prevent infection.”

Of course, the best treatment for a case of poison ivy is prevention, Tucker said. Poisonous plants can be avoided by wearing long sleeves, long pants, boots and gloves while working outdoors. This includes children! You can also apply a barrier cream containing bentoquatam (such as IvyBlock) to help protect skin in case of exposure. In addition, you should not burn plants that may be poisonous, as inhaling smoke can cause severe allergic respiratory problems. 

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