Did you know that up to roughly 85 percent of all people are sensitive to oils found in the poison ivy plant? (1) It’s true, which is why poison ivy rash is so common.
Those who react to poison ivy by developing a skin rash are also very likely to develop similar symptoms from coming into contact with poison oak or poison sumac. When a person is “sensitized” to poison ivy’s oils — the skin touches the oils and enters the immune system, causing a histamine response — a form of dermatitis develops on the skin. In about 15 percent of people, this reaction becomes very severe.
Fortunately, the poison ivy rash itself isn’t contagious. It cannot be spread from body part to body part or from person to person. However, having a poison ivy rash once does not protect you from getting it again in the future, and the fact that poison ivy’s oils can linger on tools and clothing for long periods of time means a rash can easily spread. (2) If you’re struggling to control your poison ivy symptoms, natural remedies for rashes including essential oils, supplements and compresses can all help lower itchiness and redness while you heal.
5 Natural Treatments for Poison Ivy Rash
The treatments below can help keep you protected from developing a poison ivy rash in the first place, along with lowering the severity of symptoms you experience, including itchiness. Some experts believe that treatments won’t help speed up the amount of time it takes for a poison ivy rash to heal, since the immune system must gradually work through its allergic response. However, it’s likely that by boosting overall immune function before you’re even exposed to poison ivy, you’ll be able improve healing and shorten the duration of your symptoms.
1. Take Steps to Prevent a Rash
Recognizing what poison ivy plants look like (as well as poison oak and poison sumac) and avoiding exposure are the first steps in preventing a poison ivy rash from developing. Here are some pointers:
- Poison ivy plants have three leaves and tend to be shiny and medium-sized. Some people like to remember the common phrase, “Leaves of three, let it be.” The leaves are usually bright green but can also have shades of red or yellow.
- Poison ivy is capable of growing in many climates and is found across the U.S. It tends to grow in areas where people roam around, including the edges of trails, streets or gardens.
- It can be found on golf courses, campsites, near the beach, hiking trails, by garages and on the side of dirt roads. The reason it’s commonly found in these areas is because the plant likes partial shade and tends to grow where densely populated woods meet open land.
- It can appear as either a small vine or a small shrub, which means it’s sometimes on the ground but also up higher. Its base/trunk tends to grow tiny hairs on it, which means it’s a good idea to look over a whole plant if you suspect poison ivy.
A number of available creams, soaps and lotions can also be used to help lower your risk for developing symptoms if you do come into contact with the plant. However, these still won’t guarantee that you’re protected from having an allergic reaction, so always use caution when you’re working outdoors and suspect there’s poison ivy. Some people swear by using protective lotions before they garden or work outside, since these can add a buffer between the plant and your skin.
One popular new product is called Technu, which can be used right away after exposure to remove the oil. For most people, Technu works best when used within one hour or less of contact, although the manufacturers claim it’s useful for up to eight hours. (3) But again, this or any other product isn’t guaranteed to work and usually won’t do enough to prevent a reaction in people who are highly allergic.
2. Wash Your Hands and Shower After Exposure
Washing your hands or body with strong soap and water immediately after being exposed can help remove the oil and lower your risk for having a reaction. The key is to do this as soon as possible, since the more time the oil has to linger on your skin, the higher the chances are that a poison ivy rash will develop. Skip using a washcloth when washing or drying your hands, since oil can sometimes make its way onto the cloth and remain there. And make sure to wash under your fingernails where the oil can be tough to get out.
Researchers don’t know the exact window you have to wash your hands before a reaction will occur, but sooner is always better. Although other commercial washes are now available that claim to be stronger than ordinary soap — including some that contain alcohol, acetone and other chemicals — experts don’t always agree that these are any more effective in preventing a rash. Hand soap, laundry detergent and body wash/soap work well enough for most people.
3. Wear Gloves When Gardening, Then Wash Them!
Wondering what happens if you wear latex gloves or gardening gloves while contacting poison ivy?
Poison ivy’s oils can actually penetrate latex gloves, although for some people wearing them is enough to prevent a reaction. Gardening gloves can be helpful if you wash them thoroughly afterward with soap and water (or bleach), but there’s still a risk that some oil will make its way onto your skin through the gloves. Don’t forget that the oil can linger on unwashed gloves or other equipment for weeks, so be careful to wash everything that might have been exposed to the plant.
The same goes goes your clothes, socks and even shoes: Make sure to wash anything right away that was exposed. Try to retrace your footsteps and wash over any surface that might have been rubbed with the oil, including doorknobs, gardening tools, your hose or sink faucet.
4. Apply a Cool Compress to the Rash
Experts recommend using a cool compress on the skin over areas where blisters are present. This is especially effective if you add compounds that can help control the rash, including lavender oil. You can wet a small towel or even a pillowcase (which tends to be very soft) in cold water or wrap it around ice, then gently press it against inflamed skin for 15–20 minutes at a time. Apply a compress up to several times a day if needed, ideally about every three to four hours.
Some people also choose to soak their wet compresses in solutions that can help ease swelling, including aluminum acetate. Natural treatments, including apple cider vinegar or brewed/chilled black tea, can help ease soothing due to their tannins and other compounds that lower inflammatory reactions.
5. Use Natural Anti-Itch Solutions and Natural Antihistamines
Your skin has to make direct contact with poison ivy’s oils to develop a reaction, so itching won’t cause a poison ivy rash to spread. However, it’s likely to increase itchiness and irritation, so it’s recommended you leave any affected skin alone. Instead of itching, apply natural solutions to the skin to help ease inflammation.
Herbal supplements and products that can help ease itchiness and rashes include:
- Jewelweed: You can find bottles of this plant online, which contains an essential oil that lowers many plant poison reactions. Witch hazel is used in a similar way to treat skin and might be more readily available than jewelweed.
- Echinacea: Echinacea can be taken in supplement form or used as a tincture to lower histamine reactions. Mix one part echinacea (tincture form) with three parts water, then apply the mixture to the skin several times per day with a compress.
- Bentonite clay: It’s easy to make a homemade anti-itch cream using this clay, which helps dry up blisters and reduces swelling. Apply a small amount to the affected area, let it dry until it forms flakes and then gently rinse with water.
- Colloidal oatmeal (or regular oatmeal): Try soaking in a bath with colloidal oatmeal, which can soothe blisters. Oatmeal contains substances, including avenanthramides and phenols, that have anti-inflammatory properties and help relieve itchiness. (4) You can also use regular oatmeal to make a bath if you can’t find colooidal oatmeal online or in drug store. (5)
- Essential oils: Topically applying essential oils for allergies like geranium, rose, helichrysum and lavender can improve rashes by lowering inflammation. Simply add three drops of oil to a compress and apply to the area three times daily. If you have sensitive skin, you can mix three drops with a half teaspoon of coconut oil to further dilute it and reduce its strength.
- Some people also find that taking supplements, such as vitamin B12, stinging nettle, quercetin (an antioxidant) and vitamin C, can help control their symptoms by boosting overall immunity.
What Is Poison Ivy Rash?
Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is one of many “poisonous” plants that cause reactions in humans. The particular species commonly known as eastern poison ivy grows across the U.S. along with most parts of Canada and Asia. (6)
According to the Poison Ivy Organization, the rash that poison ivy plants produce is caused by contact with one of its volatile oils called urushiol. (7, 8) All parts of the plant can contain this oil and are considered poisonous: roots, leaves, flowers, berries, stems and vines. Urushiol cannot be seen on the plant’s surface — it’s a sticky, clear liquid compound that’s found in the plant’s sap. It’s totally colorless and odorless, which makes it hard to spot and avoid.
Urushiol oil is quickly absorbed into the skin and can remain on the surface of the skin, or clothing and other materials, for several weeks or more. In fact, some research has found that urushiol can stay on certain fabrics for up to five years! (9)
Poison Ivy vs. Poison Oak vs. Poison Sumac: How Are They All Different?
Similar oils are found in all three plants and interestingly also found in other plants like cashews (specifically their shells) and the skin of mangoes. These poisonous plants are likely to cause very similar reactions, although it’s possible to be allergic to one and not all three. Poison ivy grows in a range of different climates compared to poison oak or sumac, which is why it’s more commonly a problem.
How can you tell the difference between the plants and their symptoms?
According to Lawrence F. Eichenfield, M.D., a professor of pediatrics and dermatology at University of California, you won’t be able to tell the difference between a rash caused by any of these three plants. He’s told Parents Magazine, “If you were theoretically in a place where all three plants were together and you brushed all three plants, the rash would be indistinguishable.” (10) That being said, you can still be on the lookout for different poisonous plants when you’re outside.
- Poison oak is usually a higher-climbing vine or a shrub and most likely to grow in the Western U.S. or the South. Its leaves look a lot like those that form on common oak trees, which won’t cause a similar reaction. Poison oak trees usually grow berries that are green in summer and off-white in cooler months, while poison ivy plants don’t grow berries.
- Poison sumac leaves tend to grow in patches of seven to 13 leaves on taller stems, instead of three leaves. The plant usually produces berries that are green in the summer and yellow-white in the winter. Usually, sumac grows in the Northern U.S. or the Deep South.
Poison Ivy Rash Risk Factors and Causes
A poison ivy rash is really a type of allergic reaction called contact dermatitis that can be anywhere from very mild to very severe, depending on someone’s individual tolerance.
Most people develop poison ivy symptoms within eight to 48 hours of coming into contact with urushiol — however, others don’t display all or any symptoms for much longer (up to several weeks). Symptoms might gradually appear over the course of several weeks due to repeated exposure to the plant’s oils without someone realizing it or just because of how long it takes the immune system to fully react.
According to the University of Connecticut Health Center, some of the materials and tools that can harbor urushiol oil around your house include: (11)
- Gardening equipment, like gloves or shovels
- Garden hoses
- Cotton clothing, hats, shoes, socks or other clothing
- Pet fur
- Sports equipment
- Smoke burning from poison ivy plants can also release urushiol, which can be inhaled and cause a reaction in some people (developing a poison ivy rash from this type of exposure is much less common, however).
Other risk factors for developing a poison ivy rash include: (12)
- Having family members who are allergic to the plant or who have had reactions in the past. Poison ivy allergies seem to run in families.
- Having a history of strong allergies or weakened immune system due to other medical conditions, like autoimmune disorders.
- Weeding using a weeder, which cuts up and sprays out plants. This can cause poison ivy’s oil to get splattered on your skin or clothes.
- Having sensitive skin (usually fair, easily sunburned and prone to rashes).
Poison Ivy Rash Symptoms and Signs
Symptoms of a poison ivy rash, or other reactions caused by poison ivy, include:
- Intense itching, especially if someone has dry and sensitive skin to begin with (or a skin condition like eczma and dermatitis)
- A red rash on the skin that might have yellow, inflamed patches
- Multiple blisters on the skin, some of which can be small or others very big — typically blisters develop in patches or straight lines following a path where the oil was rubbed against the skin, and if the rash becomes very bad the blisters can sometimes open and start oozing fluid
- Once the rash starts to heal, a scab usually forms — healed skin might become dry and appear a different shade than the rest of the skin
- Sunburns might make newly healed skin extra dry and sensitive, so avoid the sun while healing or immediately afterward
Is Every Person Allergic to Poison Ivy?
No, a small group of lucky individuals won’t react to exposure with any symptoms at all. However, the majority will. Luckily, experts believe that the more often you come into contact with the plant, the less likely you might be to develop a rash over and over again. Like with exposure to other viruses or bacteria, a strong immune system seems to build up a tolerance to poison ivy’s oils — although this still doesn’t guarantee any protection. While some people notice reduced reactions to poison ivy after some time, others aren’t so lucky.
How Long Does Poison Ivy Last?
For most people, a poison ivy rash tends to last for about two to three weeks. (13) Everyone’s reaction to poison ivy is different, since an allergic response depends on someone’s tolerance to the oils and strength of the immune system.
Keep in mind that symptoms might appear at different times and in different locations. Some areas of the skin are more sensitive than others, so it can take longer for certain patches of blisters to heal. The good news is that the poison ivy rash itself, or any fluid it might ooze if it becomes very inflamed, cannot cause the rash to spread. Spreading means that symptoms are still emerging slowly, or you’re being exposed to the oil from materials or tools over and over again.
All in all, poison ivy can be unpredictable. It can several weeks for all symptoms to emerge, which can make the rash frustrating to treat.
Precautions When Treating Poison Ivy Rash
If you notice severe symptoms due to an allergic reaction to poison ivy, it’s best to call your doctor. These include swelling of sensitive areas (like your throat, eyes, mouth or genitals), nausea, oozing blisters, a fever or a very hard time sleeping due to discomfort.
What happens if the rash lasts longer than several weeks or becomes unbearable and very inflamed?
If someone is severely allergic to poison ivy, most doctors will recommend a corticosteroid shot, such as prednisone or triamcinolone. The first line of defense will usually be to apply a cream containing hydrocortisone or calamine lotion. Steroid injections are used to help lower severe inflammatory responses and control swelling or itchiness, but it should only be a last-resort option. Steroids can cause side effects in some people and are not meant to be administered every time someone has a skin reaction — only if the situation becomes very uncomfortable and even risky. They’re also very unsafe to use on the face or genitals, or in pregnant women or young children.
If your doctor does recommend a steroid injection to help control your response, keep in mind that steroid tablets (oral corticosteroids) are more likely to cause side effects than injections, especially if taken for more than several days in a row. Side effects can sometimes include worsened skin reactions at the site of the injection, muscle and joint pain or swelling, puffiness, weakness, and thinning and lightening of the skin. (14) Your skin is also more prone to sunburns and irritation from anything you put onto it after a steroid injection, so take precaution.
Final Thoughts on Poison Ivy Rash
- Poison ivy’s oil called urushiol causes rashes in about 80 percent or more of all adults and children.
- Direct contact with the plant’s oil is all it takes to cause an allergic reaction. The oil can remain on surfaces and clothes for many weeks, or even months, but is killed using soap, bleach or sometimes alcohol.
- Avoid exposure to poison ivy plants as much as possible by protecting skin, washing your hands and body after being near plants, and thoroughly cleaning surfaces that come into contact with the oil.
- Help treat poison ivy rashes using essential oils, natural antihistamine supplements and cold compresses.