Poison ivy rashes are caused by exposure to oils from poison plants that grow in different parts of the United States.
Most reactions to poison ivy will heal on their own within 1-3 weeks.
Medical treatment may be required if the rash is on many parts of the body, has affected the eyes, mouth, or genitals, or if the surrounding skin shows signs of infection.
Poison ivy is a plant that can cause a rash or blisters if you come in contact with it. The oil from the plant can cause a red, itchy rash that can easily spread until the oil has been washed off with soap and water. If you encounter poison ivy, clean your hands and wash the area. In this article, we’ll explore what you need to know about poison ivy rash, options, and how to know when you should see a doctor.
When to See a Doctor for Poison Ivy
Get emergency medical care if you are exposed to smoke from burning poison ivy, poison sumac, or poison oak plants, especially if you have breathing problems.
See a doctor if any of the following occurs:
- You develop a fever after getting poison ivy
- Your poison ivy rash covers several parts of the body
- Poison ivy rash is near or on the eyes, mouth, or genitals
- Blisters from poison ivy are oozing pus or non-clear fluid
- Your skin is swelling
- The poison ivy rash has not resolved after a few weeks
- Your skin is red, hot and tender to touch
Signs and Symptoms of Poison Ivy
Poison ivy rashes can be caused by poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac plants. The rashes only appear where plant oil has directly touched the skin, although rashes do not always appear instantly. They may appear anywhere from 4 hours to 4 days after exposure.
Not everyone will get a rash after being exposed to poison ivy, but between 50-75% of U.S. adults will be sensitive enough to develop symptoms after exposure.
Signs and symptoms of poison ivy include:
- A red, streaky rash that may appear in patches
- Red bumps that become large blisters that may burst
- Extreme itchiness
You can still spread poison ivy if the oil is under fingernails or on surfaces of clothing or objects that came into contact with it or your skin after it was exposed. Make sure to wash everything that was around the poison plant thoroughly.
It is not possible to spread poison ivy from the rash alone or from the fluid in the blisters.
Stages of a Poison Ivy Rash
Symptoms of poison ivy can range from mild to severe depending on the individual’s sensitivity and the amount of plant oil exposure. The worst symptoms typically occur 4-7 days after exposure. Poison ivy rashes can last for 1-3 weeks.
Poison ivy rashes typically develop in stages:
- First few hours or days: The poison ivy rash can appear as quickly as a few hours after exposure, or it may not show up for 3-4 days. If it takes longer to show up, it may appear in more places on the body if you did not know that you had been exposed.
- Rash intensifies: After the initial rash appears, it may continue getting redder or itchier for a few more days. Even if it seems to be spreading, once the oil has been cleaned from the skin, it is not. However, inflammation from the itching could increase the redness, making it seem like it is getting worse.
- Blisters form: Blisters will typically form on the patchy rash, which may be small or large. Scratching will worsen skin reactions and the ability to heal, so try to avoid it.
- Blisters burst: The blisters will usually burst, but it is important not to pop them, which can lead to potential infection. The fluid from the blisters does not contain poison ivy oil and cannot spread the rash or any other infection. It will be clear and watery. If fluid from poison ivy appears yellow or a different color, it could be a sign of infection or that the rash is not poison ivy.
- Skin heals: After poison ivy rashes have blistered over, they will heal on their own, typically about 1-3 weeks after the initial exposure.
Medical Treatment for Poison Ivy
Poison ivy rashes usually resolve on their own without treatment. Most medical treatments will not speed the healing but can ease discomfort.
In other cases, a doctor may prescribe treatments for more complicated cases:
- Prescription steroid creams for severe itching
- Prescription steroid pills or injections for large rashes or more serious responses
- Antibiotics if signs of infection develop after poison ivy
Home Treatment for Poison Ivy
Most cases of poison ivy can be managed at home, but there are some important things NOT to do:
- Antihistamines: Unlike other types of itchy rashes, poison ivy does not respond to topical or oral antihistamines.
- Anesthetic or antibacterial creams: Over-the-counter products like benzocaine cream, which can numb skin, or bacitracin, which can prevent bacterial infection in cuts and scrapes, should not be used on poison ivy rashes. They can prevent healing and worsen the rash.
- Scratching: While poison ivy is extremely itchy, scratching can worsen the rash and can spread bacteria that could lead to infections. Try not to touch the poison ivy rash except to keep it clean and free from dirt. Wear soft, clean long sleeves over the rash to protect it and remind yourself not to scratch it.
Home care that you can try includes:
- Cool compresses with clean cotton rags
- Cool or warm oatmeal baths
- Calamine lotion
If you identify poison oak, poison ivy, or poison sumac, stay away from them. Do not pull plants up and burn them. This can lead to severe poison ivy reactions in anyone who breathes in the smoke.
If you come into contact with poison plants, thoroughly wash all exposed skin as quickly as possible. Wash with soap and hot running water, wiping in one direction to avoid spreading oils back and forth. Cleanse the area at least three times to ensure all oils have been removed. Make sure to wash clothing or objects that touch the oil, too.
If you will be in or around areas where poison ivy may be present, wear clothing that covers your arms and legs. Wear heavy-duty vinyl gloves if your hands could come in contact with poison plants. Oils from poison ivy plants can seep through rubber or latex gloves.
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Frequently Asked Questions
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Patient education: Poison ivy (Beyond the Basics). (2022).
Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac Dermatitis: What Is Known and What Is New? (2019).
Poison ivy, oak, and sumac rash. (2022).