Further Reading

 What is Poison Ivy?

by Tariq M. Khan, MD, FAAP

Poison ivy or poison oak typically refers to the rash or localized reaction caused by contact with the oils of these plants. One can get a rash from touching or brushing against any part of these plants even if they are dead.

The rash is only caused and spread by the oils. You cannot catch the rash from someone else by coming in contact with them. This type of rash is an allergic reaction to the oils. One becomes allergic after the initial contact, and it may take up to a week to develop a rash. Any future exposures result in a rash in a lesser time period. Typical symptoms are itching, red streaks, small bumps and blisters that are fluid filled on the areas of body where the plant oils came in contact.

It’s quite uncommon for people to have a systemic reaction such trouble breathing or extensive swelling of the face or mouth. Children are especially at risk because they are usually active and involved in outdoor activities in summer. The rash is typically diagnosed by a healthcare provider by looking at it and taking a history about the exposure.

Once the exposure has happened, it’s recommended that you thoroughly wash the area of skin and/or body parts that were exposed with soap and cool water. Any clothing worn should be washed as well. This rash is typically treated by applying a cool wet cloth or compress to the site. Use of calamine lotion can help relieve itching. It is not advisable to apply medications such as topical antibiotic or steroid creams to the area without evaluation by a healthcare provider.

If it’s a severe rash covering large areas of the body, a healthcare provider may advise use of the topical steroid cream. Sometimes oral or injectable steroids are prescribed as well. Even with treatment, the rash may take a couple of weeks or longer to resolve.

As always, preventative measures are best. Wear long sleeved shirts and long pants when in outdoor areas where contact with the plants cannot be avoided. Also, wear gloves when working with plants or vegetation in the summer.