What’s the Best Way to Treat Poison Ivy?

Heart health
August 15, 2018

Wondering what to do about a poison ivy rash? Check out these simple remedies for some much-needed itch-relief.

When a plant’s scientific name includes the word “Toxicodendron,” it’s probably something to avoid at all costs! Unfortunately, poison ivy can be found everywhere in the United States except Hawaii, California, and Alaska, so keeping it at arm’s length isn’t always easy. Read on to find out more about this surprisingly savage shrub.

What is poison ivy?

Poison ivy is a toxic plant with leaves that grow in clusters of three. It’s often found in areas that are disturbed by humans, such as roads, trails, and the edges of land and building plots. “Poison” is a big, scary word, so let’s just ask the obvious question: what do we mean by poisonous? It’s all about urushiol (u-roo-she-ol), an oil contained in the plant’s sap that can cause blistering skin rashes when you touch it. It’s the same stuff in poison oak and poison sumac and according to the American Academy of Dermatology, around 85% of Americans are allergic to it.

In most cases, poison ivy isn’t particularly dangerous. You may get an itchy rash, swelling, and blisters, but for most people, symptoms will disappear after a couple of weeks. However, it’s worth remembering that poison ivy can have much more serious effects. If you notice any of the following symptoms, you should head to an emergency room right away:

  • The rash spreads to most of your body
  • Swelling (especially swelling that causes one of your eyelids to swell shut)
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • You can’t find anything to ease the itchiness of your skin

What does poison ivy look like?

Okay, here’s an easy one: what does poison ivy look like? After all, if you know how to identify it, you won’t need to find a remedy for it. You might have heard the old “leaves of three, let it be” rule, but given that poison ivy can take on a wide variety of appearances, you’ll probably need something a little more comprehensive to identify a blossom of poison ivy out in the wild.

The Spruce has put together an extensive collection of photographs showing what poison ivy looks like throughout the growing season, perfect for anyone who thinks they may have poison ivy growing in their backyard. Remember, urushiol is secreted in every part of the plant, from the berries to the roots, so you need to be careful when interacting with poison ivy in any capacity.

Young poison ivy has reddish-orange leaves and doesn’t grow very high. By the time the plant has matured, it’s green and stands approximately two feet off the ground. Poison ivy’s leaves aren’t uniform, so there’s a couple of different things to watch out for. They can be wavy or jagged, hairy or smooth, dull or waxy, and will grow to lengths of about 2-5 inches. When spring rolls around, poison ivy blossoms with small, white flowers, before producing green berries in summer. By fall, the plant’s leaves turn red again, almost resembling maple leaves.

What is the best poison ivy remedy?

The best poison ivy remedy isn’t really a remedy so much as a preventative measure: don’t touch it in the first place! If you’re heading out somewhere that you know is rife with poison ivy, take the necessary precautions. Long-sleeve shirts, pants, closed-toe shoes, and socks are a must, while green-fingered gardeners should be sure to wear rubber gloves. Of course, it’s not always possible to prevent yourself from touching poison ivy. So, how can you stop the rash from spreading if you do happen to touch it?

Immediately after touching poison ivy

First things first, you need to get the oil off your body. Wash your skin with soapy water and throw all the clothes you were wearing into the washing machine. Don’t forget to wash under your nails, as well as any other hard-to-reach places.

Rubbing alcohol is another great way to remove urushiol from your skin. For best results, you’ll need to use it within 10 minutes of touching the plant. If you’re a diehard outdoor enthusiast, it’s probably best to bring some alcohol wipes along with you when you’re out for a stroll. Some people swear by specialized wipes and washes to get the urushiol off.

After symptoms appear

Symptoms usually develop after 12-72 hours, which is when you need to start seeking treatment. Oral antihistamines may help to ease the inflammation and clamp down on the itchiness. Benadryl and Claritin are two potential options, but you should probably discuss using them with a pharmacist or doctor before you take anything.

Creams and lotions that include calamine and cortisone can help to dry out blisters and relieve your itches. Although these sorts of treatments won’t speed up your recovery, they can provide you with some temporary relief. If your symptoms are serious enough, your doctor may prescribe medications or steroid drugs.

Finally, there are lots of natural remedies that have been suggested down the years. It’s tough to determine just how effective they are, but research has shown that several could be worth pursuing. Baking soda has been recommended as a poison ivy remedy by the AAD, while research suggests that bentonite clay—a natural clay used in lots of beauty products—can diminish the effect of poison ivy and poison oak. In addition, you can use a cold compress for a bit of pain relief.

Poison ivy is a bit of an annoyance, sure, but it shouldn’t stop you from enjoying everything the great outdoors has to offer. If you want to avoid taking a walk on the itchy side, keep your eyes peeled for the plant and look, don’t touch.