Leaves of Three, Let Them Be!

A poison ivy rash can quickly turn a mountain hike or camping trip into an itchy, painful and uncomfortable ordeal. Learn to recognize the culprit plant and avoid contact with it.

A type of toxic plant, poison ivy commonly grows in most areas of the United States. Growing low to the ground, it can appear as a weed or shrub; it can also grow as a vine, clinging to trees or poles. In any form, poison ivy’s characteristic “leaves of three” signal its identity, changing color as the seasons change. Poison ivy contains an oil or sap known as urushiol, to which most people are allergic. Located on the leaves, stems and roots of the plant, urushiol is responsible for causing a reaction resulting in a skin rash. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 85% of Americans are allergic to poison ivy, and will develop a rash if they come into contact with it.

In addition to the plant itself, which transmits its toxin, once the urushiol has been transferred to other surfaces, it can continue to spread its harmful toxin. You can come into contact with it by touching clothing or shoes that have urushiol on them, touching garden tools with the oil on them, petting animals that come into contact with poison ivy and carry the oil on their fur, and even inhaling the smoke that results from burning poison ivy plants.

Following exposure to urushiol, a skin rash can appear within several hours or take as many as 72 hours before manifestation on the skin. It may appear as red skin or red streaks or red bumps, and is typically accompanied by swelling and intense itching. Blisters can develop, often with oozing and crusting skin. The rash is not contagious and usually can be treated at home, disappearing within one to three weeks.

Over-the-counter calamine lotion and cortisone creams can help to reduce the itching. Oral antihistamines, such as Zyrtec or Benadryl which are also available over the counter, help to relieve the inflammation and itching. You should seek care from your provider if you develop difficulty breathing or swallowing, or if the rash covers your face and causes severe swelling to the eyelids. If your skin rash doesn’t disappear within a few weeks, contact your provider.

Learn to recognize poison ivy and avoid contact with it. When camping, hiking or gardening, to reduce the likelihood of developing poison ivy’s itchy skin rash, wear protective clothing, including long sleeves and pants, and gloves; wash clothing and shoes after any possible exposure to poison ivy; clean gloves and garden tools after every use; if pets may have come into contact with poison ivy, wash them immediately. Pets usually don’t have a poison ivy allergy but they can spread it to you. If you have come into contact with poison ivy, wash your skin immediately with soap and cool water to reduce the possibility of developing a skin rash. Urushiol can bond to the skin within minutes.

Author
Ithaca Primary Care

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