Oh, how I wish I wasn’t writing this blog post! Alas, this writing and research was prompted by my own miserable encounter with poison ivy this summer!
Until last summer, I hadn’t had poison ivy for decades. But after two encounters (this summer being far worse than last years), I now remember the horrendously itchy, uncomfortable, irritated feeling of “torture” that I knew as a child at summer camp on the East Coast.
My personal experience with poison ivy this year (see more below) taught me some lessons about how poison ivy is spread—or not spread—and what some of the best natural remedies that provide relief are.
I hope that you and your children steer clear of poison ivy this season—but if you do come in contact with this pesky plant, I hope this information assists you in a speedy recovery!
What is poison ivy?
Poison ivy rash is a type of allergic contact dermatitis caused by an oily resin called urushiol. Urushiol is found in the leaves, stems, berries and roots of poison ivy (as well as poison oak and poison sumac) plant. This resin is very sticky, so it can easily attach to your skin, clothing, objects and pet’s fur.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of a poison ivy rash include:
- Difficulty breathing (if you’ve inhaled the smoke from burning poison ivy)
Often the rash forms in a straight line because of the way the plant brushes against your skin. But if you come into contact with a piece of clothing, an object or pet fur that has urushiol on it, the rash may be more dispersed.
The severity of the rash depends on the amount of urushiol that gets on your skin. A section of skin with more urushiol on it may develop a rash more quickly or intensely.
How is poison ivy spread?
Your skin must come in direct contact with the plant’s oil, urushiol, to be affected. Direct contact includes:
- Touching the leaves, stem, roots or berries of the poison ivy plant itself.
- Walking through poison ivy and then later touching your clothing or shoes. The urushiol may then transfer to your hands, which you may then transfer to your face or body by touching or rubbing.
- If a contaminated object (such as gardening equipment) isn’t cleaned, the urushiol on it can cause a skin reaction if you come into contact with it.
- Even the smoke from burning poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac contains urushiol and can irritate or harm your nasal passages or lungs.
How long does it take for a poison ivy rash to develop? How long does it last?
The poison ivy rash usually develops 12 to 72 hours after exposure. However, during this time, if the oils remain on your body, clothing, pet or other objects, it is possible to transfer the urushiol around your body (or to other people who come in contact with the oil by touching any of those things) before you are aware.
Once you see the poison ivy rash, it typically will last 2-4 weeks.
It is common for the rash to appear over time instead of all at once. This is either because the plant oil is absorbed at different rates by different parts of the body or because of repeated exposure (to objects, clothing, or oils under your fingernails from scratching) that enables it to spread.
Is a poison ivy rash contagious?
A poison ivy rash itself isn’t contagious—and blister fluid from the rash doesn’t contain urushiol and won’t spread the rash.
You can only catch poison ivy from another person if you’ve touched urushiol that’s still on that person or his/her clothing. Similarly, your pet can pass poison ivy onto you only if the urushiol remains on his/her fur.
Is everyone allergic to poison ivy?
It is estimated that up to 85% of Americans are allergic to poison ivy, but 15% will not develop a rash upon contact. It is believed that a person’s sensitivity to urushiol may change over time.
What should you do if you know you’ve been in contact with poison ivy?
Wash your skin immediately with warm water and soap if you come into contact with poison ivy. Washing off the oil may reduce your chances of getting a poison ivy rash.
How do you wash poison ivy off clothing and other objects?
Wash affected clothing items separately with laundry detergent. Set your machine to the hottest recommended water temperature and to the longest and largest load setting. Washing the items separately will prevent the urushiol from spreading to other garments.
For items that cannot be laundered (such as flip flips, rain boots, hiking poles or gardening equipment) you can apply rubbing alcohol to them. Be sure to protect your hands by wearing disposable gloves.
Please note that the urushiol can remain active for months (possibly even years!) on an item and then transfer to your skin.
My personal experiences with poison ivy
Last summer I was with a friend and our kids our neighborhood lake. As I leaned up against a tree and saw a vine wrapped around it, I joked to her, “I sure hope this isn’t poison ivy”…only to learn a day later that indeed it was.
I got the poison ivy rash on my wrist (where I came in contact with the plant) and on my belly (that day I was wearing a shirt that I tucked into my shorts and clearly rubbed the oils on my belly). The whole ordeal lasted 2-weeks, and while it wasn’t fun and was certainly uncomfortable, it wasn’t absolutely horrible.
This summer when I contracted poison ivy, it was a “perfect storm” that taught me a lot of lessons about how it spreads and how bad it can get (but of course it did because we all need more opportunities for learning and growth right now, don’t we? Ha!).
I believe I encountered poison ivy at Eldorado Creek. We brought blankets and sat along the creek and I didn’t see any poison ivy but I believe now that our blankets were on top of it. I packed up my blanket when I had to leave and carried it out under my right arm.
See the picture below—this was the first rash that emerged on my body—a full 72 hours after exposure, clearly where the oils made first contact with my skin.
Not knowing that I had just been exposed to poison ivy, I headed from the creek to a massage appointment. I believe the massage then spread the oils all over my body because within a few days I had a rash along my jawline, down both legs, around both ankles, and a few spots along my back, belly, and more. YIKES!
As soon as I realized that I had poison ivy (which unfortunately was 3+ days post exposure) I couldn’t even remember what clothing and shoes I had worn that day and I washed everything (clothing, bed sheets, towels…) and did the best I could. In hindsight, I do not think that I showered until the following day after being at the creek, allowing the oils to sit on my skin 24 full hours. When I showered, I also shaved and I believe this further spread the oils around my skin as well!
Upon realizing I had poison ivy, I immediately reached out to my massage therapist, who I know is sensitive to poison ivy, anticipating that I most surely passed it onto him—but was relieved to learn that I hadn’t!
Even if everything I mentioned did spread the plants oils along MY body, his skin was spared. HIS practice as a trained massage therapist is to wash his hands up to his elbows with soap and warm water between massages. Doing that immediately after touching my body spared him from contracting the oils onto his own skin.
Additionally, some sources say that wiping alcohol on your skin immediately after contact can prevent the plant’s urushiol from fully penetrating your skin. Given the amount of hand sanitizing most practitioners are required to do these days, that probably was another plus for him.
As I will mention again below, prevention and quick-action is the key to avoiding a poison ivy rash!
How do you prevent poison ivy?
- Learn how to identify poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. See the info below and this link. Poison ivy is most known for its bunches of three leaves. As a kid we learned, “leaves of three, let them be.”
- When hiking, try to stay on cleared trails. When picnicking or camping, make sure you put your blanket or tent in an area free of plants.
- Keep pets from running through vine-covered areas so that urushiol doesn’t accidentally stick to their fur, which you then may touch. Bathe your pet immediately if there is any question of exposure.
- Wear protective clothing such as socks, boots, pants, long sleeves and gardening gloves. Clean contaminated clothing and objects immediately (see my info above) in a washing machine or with alcohol.
- Wash your skin or your pet’s fur after potential exposure. Ideally, within 30 minutes of exposure, use soap and water to gently wash off the harmful resin from your skin. Scrub under your fingernails too. Even washing after an hour or so can help reduce the severity of the rash.
What are the most effective natural treatments for poison ivy?
- Witch hazel: The astringent properties of witch hazel can have a calming, cooling and soothing effect. Simply soak a cotton round with witch hazel and let it sit on your skin for 5-10 minutes. This simple remedy is my #1 personal favorite and has helped me get back to sleep on many itchy nights!
- Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV): Soak a cotton round in undiluted apple cider vinegar or a 50/50 mixture of apple cider vinegar and water. Apply it to the rash for 5-10 minutes. For me, ACV is most effective when combined with clay (see below).
- Baking soda: To take away the itch, make a thick paste from baking soda and water and apply it to the rash or blisters. I find that this one may sting but also provides great relief.
- Oatmeal baths: Simply grind 1 cup oatmeal in your blender until it is a fine powder, then pour it into a piece of cheesecloth and tie a knot. Fill the bathtub with warm water and soak for 30 minutes. Who else did this when they had itchy chicken pox as a child?
- Aloe Vera: Just like a nasty sunburn, the gel from an aloe vera plant can work wonders on a poison ivy rash. Apply the gel directly to the skin from the leaf of a fresh plant, or use a store-bought aloe gel for convenience.
- Bentonite clay: Clay is an ancient remedy used to bind and draw out toxins (such as the urushiol oil) from the skin. This is my favorite clay and I combine it with equal parts ACV to make a smooth paste. Apply like a mask and let dry, up to four times daily.
- Essential oils: My body is very accustomed to essential oils because I use them often. To the above clay & ACV recipe, you may choose to add lavender oil (soothing), peppermint oil (cooling), and or tea tree oil (antimicrobial and drying), 1-2 drops each. I have personally used these oils undiluted and directly on my skin, but please use caution with that if your body is not used to essential oils or your skin is sensitive.
What if natural treatments aren’t enough?
- Try a product with Calamine (skin protectant & drying) such as this, Pramoxine HCI 1% (Topical Analgesic) such as this; or a combo product such as this.
- Try an over-the-counter corticosteroid cream such as 1% hydrocortisone itch cream such as this.
- Take oral OTC antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine, (such as Benadryl) which will help with the itching and may also help you sleep.
- In severe cases, oral steroids (such as prednisone) may be necessary to deal with the inflammation.
What has worked for you?
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve likely had some personal experience with poison ivy. My sympathies are with you!
I’d love to hear what treatments you’ve found effective. Please let me know in the comments below…