Have you ever been camping with your Boy Scout Troops or gone for a hike in the woods with your parents and then come back with an itchy, red rash, you probably know first-hand just how difficult poison ivy can be to live with!

What is a Poison Ivy Reaction?

A poison ivy reaction is your body’s immune response to the presence of botanical oils that are present in the leaves, roots and stems of the poisons ivy plant (but can also occur in poison oak and poison sumac).  This problem is made more difficult because of the fact that these plants are hardy and very adaptable, growing in many regions all over the United States. In other worlds, they can be hard to escape from!

How Do These Reactions Happen?

These reactions happen when you come into direct or indirect contact with their the poison ivy plant or with objects, clothing or animals that have been contaminated by the poison ivy. A third way is to breathe in smoking from a fire where poison ivy is burning (such as from a wildfire or from campfire or wood-burning stove where the wood was cut down with poison ivy already on it).

What Signs and Symptoms Occur with Poison Ivy Reactions?

While signs and symptoms of a poison ivy reaction can be mild or severe, depending on the person, they usually include the following:

  • Intense itching that can bring on sensations of pain or burning if scratched
  • Blisters
  • Weeping (oozing of clear, thin liquid from the skin)
  • Swelling or discoloration in the affected area
  • Scars can result if the reaction is severe or if treatment does not begin right away.

Who is at Risk for a Poison Ivy?

People who are at the greatest risk for a poison ivy reaction include:

  • People who work outdoors, like farmers, outdoor educators/guides, construction workers, landscape architects or surveyors
  • People who play outdoors, such as hikers, canoeists and gardeners.
  • People who own pets who have access to the outdoors.

How is a Poison Ivy Diagnosed and Treated?

Poison ivy is diagnosed by a doctor visually inspecting it and by inquiring into recent activities –such as playing out in the woods — that could have lead to poison ivy exposure.

There are many ways to treat poison ivy, depending on whether it is mild or moderate to severe:

  • Mild poison ivy usually responds to topical treatments like calamine lotion, corticosteroid creams, witch hazel extract or aloe. Soaking in an oatmeal bath (such as ones made by Aveeno) or taking oral antihistamines like Benadryl are also helpful.
  • Moderate to severe reactions usually require a visit to the doctor, who will give you oral steroids or even a steroid injection to bring down the inflammation. Sometimes, if you have a secondary infection, you may also have to take an antibiotic to clear it up.

How Can You Prevent a Poison Ivy Reaction?

The best way to treat a poison ivy reaction is not to get one in the first place!  There are some really simply ways to minimize your exposure:

  • Learn to identify poison ivy (as well as poison oak and poison sumac) when you are outside and avoid contact with them.
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants when working or playing outside and wash your outdoor clothes separately if possible to avoid contamination.
  • If you realize that you have been in contact with these plants, wash the affected area IMMEDIATELY with warm water and, if possible, products like Tecnu, which is a specially soap designed to wash away the plant oils that cause the reaction to begin with.

In short, while poison ivy is no fun to deal with, the good news is that most cases can be treated with simple measures at home — and also that by following just a few basic guidelines, you can usually avoid or minimize contact with these plants altogether.