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Encounters With Poison Ivy in the Outdoors: Best and Fastest Remedies

Encounters With Poison Ivy in the Outdoors: Best and Fastest Remedies

The great outdoors doesn’t seem so great when you have an encounter with poison ivy. An itchy rash doesn’t take long to develop. Blisters and swelling may soon follow. So, what can you do when the toxin irritates your skin? Today, we’re looking at a few tried-and-true poison ivy remedies and dismantling a few popular myths about treatment. If you’re outside camping and exploring, you’ll want to know what works and what doesn’t. Let’s dive in!

Mayo Clinic Minute: How to treat poison ivy rash

What Is Poison Ivy?

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a plant found in North America that is well known for causing a painful, itchy rash when its oil coating contacts the skin. The oil coating, or urushiol, causes an allergic reaction. This irritation is usually mild but can develop into an infection or cause severe symptoms like difficulty breathing or swelling for some. 

When you spend time outside, you’ll likely end up with a poison ivy rash at some point (unless you’re immune). Since poison ivy lives all over the continent, you’ll likely run into it anywhere you hike, bike, or climb. The plant also lives year-round. So you can get a poison ivy rash even in the dead of winter if you touch any part of the plant.

Is Poison Ivy Contagious?

The good news is a poison ivy rash isn’t contagious. You can’t get a rash by touching someone else’s rash. However, you WILL get a rash if you touch the oil. The urushiol lingers until you’ve washed the contaminated area, and it’s often difficult to know everything else it has contaminated before you realize what’s happened.

For instance, if you trap it underneath your fingernails, you can spread the rash anywhere you touch your body. If your pet gets the oil on its fur, it can transfer to your hands when you pet them. It will remain on surfaces until you wash it away.

Then you’ll want to treat it with poison ivy remedies.

How Long Does It Take For a Poison Ivy Rash to Go Away?

The poison ivy rash is sneaky, in that it doesn’t develop for 12-48 hours. It can also take a frustratingly long time for it to heal, about 1-3 weeks without treatment. The recovery time depends on how widespread the exposure, the amount of time the urushiol was in contact, and whether infection sets in from scratching the blisters.

The best thing you can do to help the rash go away quickly is to be able to quickly determine if you’ve come in contact with it in the first place.

How to Identify Poison Ivy

Since poison ivy exists almost everywhere in North America, you likely want to know what it looks like to avoid it. The old saying goes, “Leaves of three, let it be.” This adage came about because poisonous plants tend to have clusters of three leaves. If you see a plant on a hiking trail with three leaves, don’t touch it.

This is the best way to identify poison ivy because its appearance varies. The plant could be a bush or a vine. It could be hairy or glossy. Its leaves can turn all colors. To be safe, keep your hands, feet, clothing, gardening tools, and pets away from plants with clusters of three leaves.

Poison ivy identification graphic
Knowing how to identify poison ivy is the best way to stay rash free.

What To Do If You Touch Poison Ivy

To prevent it from spreading to whatever you touch, immediately rinse your skin with warm, soapy water. Hopefully, you can wash off the oil from the infected area. You don’t typically have to rush to the emergency room if you think you’ve touched poison ivy.

If you’ve been hiking and think you have poison ivy oil on your clothing, thoroughly wash your clothes as soon as possible. Wear gloves when removing your clothes to keep the oil from touching your skin and causing a rash.

If you’ve been working in the garden, hunting golf balls near the edge of the woods, or walking with your pet through an area with poison ivy, you’ll need to wash everything that could have touched the urushiol. Please wear gloves. Even when washing your dog, you want to wear gloves because if the oil contacts your skin, the toxin will cause an irritating rash.

Poison ivy growing
If you come in contact with poison ivy, quickly rinse your skin with warm, soapy water to prevent it from spreading.

Can You Treat Poison Ivy At Home?

There are simple things you can do at home to manage poison ivy skin irritation, help reduce the itchiness, and soothe your skin. Our recommendations here come directly from the FDA’s website, as there is a lot of content out there touting at-home remedies that just don’t work. They may even make things worse. These are the fastest and most effective methods for healing your poison ivy rash.

First, don’t scratch the blisters. We know this is really hard.

Next, soak the affected area in a lukewarm bath. Add half a cup of baking soda or an oatmeal-based bath product like Aveeno. However, keep baths short.

You can also place cool, wet compresses on the affected area for 15 to 30 minutes several times daily. Not only will this reduce swelling and keep you from scratching the rash, but it will soothe your irritated skin.

You mustn’t scratch the blisters. If the itchiness is too much, there are poison ivy remedies you can buy from the local pharmacy or convenience store. Check them out below.

Best Remedies From the Store

If the at-home poison ivy remedies aren’t doing enough, you can apply an over-the-counter cortisone cream or ointment. You can buy calamine lotion or menthol creams at a local grocery store or pharmacy. If the itching is severe, your doctor can prescribe an oral corticosteroid.

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Poison ivy rash
Cortisone cream and calamine lotion can be bought over the counter to provide relief.

Poison Ivy Remedies That DON’T Work

Although you may want to use a “natural” remedy to combat poison ivy, the FDA doesn’t recommend this. The best and fastest at-home options are the tried-and-true methods of lukewarm baths with baking soda, cold compresses, cortisone cream, and calamine lotion.

Don’t Use Rubbing Alcohol

There is a rumor on the internet that rubbing alcohol helps deactivate and extract the urushiol oil from your skin. However, rubbing alcohol is caustic and can also damage your skin more. From our research, it seems that this method is only sometimes recommended at the very beginning as part of the cleaning process. However, soap and water is the best and most thorough cleaner for exposed skin.

Don’t Take Oral Antihistamines

While you may think oral antihistamines help relieve itching, they don’t work effectively and make you drowsy. Products like Benadryl can cause you to fall asleep and scratch yourself without realizing it, worsening the rash.

Don’t Use Steroid Creams

Low-potency steroid creams, like 1% hydrocortisone, aren’t usually helpful either. UpToDate, a website dedicated to providing clinical evidence to the public, explains, “You should not use antihistamine creams or lotions, anesthetic creams containing benzocaine, or antibiotic creams containing neomycin or bacitracin to the skin. These creams or ointments could make the rash worse.”

Don’t Use Vinegar

Another popular natural remedy you’ve probably heard of is apple cider vinegar. However, the National Capital Poison Center warns the public not to put vinegar on the skin as this can cause burns and further irritation.

Essential Oils Don’t Heal Rashes

Finally, many people have used essential oils to combat the itching associated with poison ivy. Although calendula, chamomile, eucalyptus, lavender, tea tree, and other oils have proven effective at reducing itching, they don’t treat the rash.

Caution poison ivy sign
When in doubt, call your doctor for help kicking your poison ivy rash to the curb!

Poison Ivy Remedies Aren’t Working! When to See a Doctor

We don’t want to scare you, but sometimes poison ivy can be serious depending on how severe of a reaction you’re having and the placement of the rash. Go the the doctor immediately if any of the following occur:

  • If you have difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • You have a rash around your eyes or mouth
  • Your face starts to swell
  • Rashes on 25% or more of your body
  • A fever
  • Rash hasn’t improved in 7 to 10 days
  • Pus or soft yellow scabs
  • Itching makes it impossible to sleep

These are signs of a severe reaction. You should seek medical attention immediately. You may need higher-strength steroids for a few weeks to treat the rash and prevent it from returning.

How to identify Poison Ivy.

Leaves of Three, Let It Be This Camping and Hiking Season

“Leaves of three, let it be,” is an old saying that can keep you safe as you enjoy the outdoors. Don’t let the fear of poison ivy keep you from hitting the trails. However, be aware of your surroundings. When you realize that you might have encountered poison ivy, wash off the oil immediately. Prevent spreading by wearing gloves. You might even visit the store for some calamine lotion. Thankfully, interacting with poison ivy isn’t a matter of life or death. Still, try to steer clear of clusters of three leaves!

Have you ever experienced a rash from poison ivy? What remedies worked for you? Tell us your tips in the comments!

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Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
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Tuesday 3rd of October 2023

As a surveyor I oftentimes suffered with PI. My only "tried and true" remedy was two weeks. YMMV