Responding to Poison Ivy
Problems with Poison Ivy
Have you ever woken up with a poison ivy rash when you haven’t even gone outside?
Have you found yourself wondering, how did that happen?
Karen Hickman, professor and director of the environmental sciences program at Oklahoma State University, said people do not have to go outside to directly be exposed to the plant. A pet dog might trample through poison ivy before returning home.
“One myth about poison ivy is the belief you can get poison ivy just by being near the plants. That's not totally true,” Hickman said. “In that particular scenario, the dog may have broken open a leaf or two and gotten some of the poisonous resin on its fur. The owner pets the dog, and voila.”
Hickman said common ways of getting a rash from contact with the oily resin include touching contaminated garden tools, clothing, bicycles or pets, as well as inhaling smoke from burning poison ivy.
The poisonous part of poison ivy, urushiol, is an oily resin that remains inside the leaves unless the plant is damaged or bruised. It is possible to touch an unblemished poison ivy plant and not have a reaction, but the slightest damage – perhaps from walking through a patch of the plant or a tiny insect making a tiny bite in the leaf – can cause leakage.
“Once you notice a rash or blisters, it’s a good idea to wash any clothes, bed sheets or anything else that you may have come in contact with,” Hickman said.
Another myth is that the ooze from poison ivy blisters spreads the rash. However, the fluid from blisters does not contain urushiol.
Treating Poison Ivy
If someone were to come in contact with the plant, they should immediately wash the
area with cold water and soap for at least 10 minutes to remove the resin.
“If you get the oil from the plant on you and wash it off in time, you won’t get the rash,” said Dr. Aaron Lane, clinical professor of emergency medicine at OSU Medicine in Tulsa. “It’s not a typical wash though. You need to use a lot of soap and water and really scrub to remove all of the oil.”
However, symptoms will not usually show themselves until 24 to 48 hours after initial contact.
There are some dangerous myths about how to get rid of poison ivy by rubbing caustic material on the exposed area, Lane said. But once you’ve had exposure to poison ivy, the only thing that might help is an oatmeal bath.
“If the rash isn’t very bad and you just have a little spot, the treatment is topical hydrocortisone cream, which you can get over the counter,” Lane said. “You could also take Benadryl for the itching.”
For more significant rashes, a trip to the doctor’s office will be required to get a two-week treatment of steroids.
“We typically give a high dose of the steroid for the first few days and then taper it back to where the last few days are a very small dose,” he said.
Whether someone has just a couple small dots or a full-blown, body covering rash, the area should be left alone. Scratching will irritate and break the skin, which will increase blood flow to the area and bring more histamine.
The good news is the rash will not spread simply by scratching it.
“Poison ivy can’t spread in your blood,” Lane said. “You can spread it by scratching an area that has the oil and then touching somewhere else. We always have people cut their fingernails to get rid of any oil that may be trapped under there.”