How do I know if I have poison ivy?

Don’t let the itchy rash of poison ivy get you down this spring

Spring has sprung in Kentucky, and with it comes those leaves of three: poison ivy. If you think you have poison ivy, here’s what you need to know.

Rashes from poison ivy and its relatives poison oak and poison sumac are caused by an allergic reaction to an oily substance called urushiol (pronounced yoo-ROO-shee-all). Urushiol is in the leaves, stems and roots of these plants and can cause an itchy rash.

“Poison ivy rashes can appear anywhere from four hours to up to a week after exposure,” said Rachel Alexander, APRN, nurse practitioner with Norton eCare. “It depends on the person.”

How to know if you have poison ivy

A poison ivy rash will be red on light-skinned individuals and comes with itching, swelling and sometimes blisters. Inhaling smoke from burning poison ivy can cause difficulty breathing.

Not everyone has an allergic reaction to urushiol — about 15% of the population has no response to these plants. You don’t have to come into direct contact with the plant to have a reaction, especially if you have a stronger allergic response to urushiol. You can get a rash from touching something that has urushiol on it, such as animal fur or garden tools.

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How to prevent poison ivy rash

  • Wear protective clothing when in the woods or working in the yard. Protective clothing can include long sleeves, long pants, a hat, and gloves when handling plants.
  • Wash clothing right away after outdoor activity; the oil from poison ivy can linger on clothing.
  • Have a professional remove any poison ivy in your yard.
  • Never try to burn poison ivy — the urushiol can become aerosolized and irritate your nose, eyes and lungs.
  • Keep a poison ivy kit on hand that includes rubbing alcohol, bottled water and soap. The sooner you wash the oil off the skin, the better chance you have of decreasing the severity of the rash.

How to treat poison ivy

  • The rash will resolve on its own, however, the itching associated with the rash can be unbearable.
  • Remove the oil from the skin as soon as possible with rubbing alcohol and/or a lukewarm shower with soap.
  • Try not to scratch; use over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams or an oral antihistamine to help ease the itchiness.
  • Oatmeal baths or baking soda (1 cup added to bath water), as well as cold, wet compresses, can help relieve itchy skin.

When to see a doctor for poison ivy

According to Rachel,  a poison ivy rash will clear up on its own.

“Most people have a rash for one to three weeks, but there are some reasons you might need to see a provider,” Rachel said.

Contact a medical provider if:

  • The rash is near your eyes, mouth or genitals, or if it covers more than 25% of your body.
  • Rash does not begin to get better within seven to 10 days.
  • You have difficulty breathing or swallowing, your eyes swell or you develop a fever.

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