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Poison Ivy Remedies FAQ

Poison Ivy

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Updated June 14, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Poison Ivy (Rhus radicans) a poisonous plant
Ed Reschke/Oxford Scientific/Getty Images

Unless they are familiar with poison ivy, parents sometimes treat their children with poison ivy home remedies to try and control the itching. This sometimes works for very mild cases, but a visit to your pediatrician for prescription poison ivy remedy is often needed when your child has a poison ivy rash, especially if it is on the face or all over his body.

Learn about these poison ivy remedies and other frequently asked questions about treating poison ivy.

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently asked questions that parents have about poison ivy usually revolve around how to get rid of the poison ivy rash and how to avoid it in the future.

Some other things people think they know about poison ivy should likely be questioned, though, as they are mostly myths, and might result in kids being inappropriately treated or exposed to poison ivy.

Common poison ivy myths to question include that:

  • Many people are immune to poison ivy: While some are (maybe 10 to 15% of people), most develop a reaction when exposed to poison ivy. It sometimes takes multiple exposures, though, which may explain why some people seem to be immune to poison ivy. Kids often don't begin to develop poison ivy rashes until they are between 8 and 14 years old, which may give some parents the belief that their child is immune to poison ivy, while instead they were just at an age when they were less susceptible to poison ivy.

  • Some people can develop a rash just being close to poison ivy: Urushiol is only released when a poison ivy plant is injured or bruised, so just being near a plant or even lightly touching it shouldn't cause a reaction.

  • Your kids can avoid poison ivy by just remembering "leaves of three, let them be": Poison sumac has more than three leaves, and since the stems and roots of poison ivy and poison oak, which do have three leaves, can still trigger a rash even when their leaves are gone, you likely need to do more to educate kids to avoid poison ivy plants and a poison ivy rash.

What is Poison Ivy?

Poison ivy is a type of weed that can trigger an allergic contact dermatitis in most people who come in contact with it, or more specifically, the urushiol resin, in the leaves, stems, or roots, of a poison ivy plant.

Other "poison" plants in the same Toxicodendron genus include poison oak and poison sumac, and although these plants look different, they all contain urushiol and can all trigger the same type of rash, so are often all grouped together in talks about poison ivy.

Where Does Poison Ivy Grow?

Plants that can trigger a poison ivy rash grow all over the United States, except Alaska and Hawaii.

In general, each type of plant grows in different regions, including:

  • poison ivy in states east of the Rocky Mountains
  • poison oak in states west of the Rocky Mountains (Pacific poison oak), where it grows as a shrub or climbing vine
  • poison oak in in the southeastern United States (Atlantic poison oak), where it grows as a shrub
  • poison sumac in the southeastern United States, where it grows as a small tree or shrub

Is There a Cure for Poison Ivy?

There is no real cure for poison ivy. The closest thing to curing poison ivy might be those poison ivy remedies that work to remove the urushiol from poison ivy that gets on your skin and triggers the poison ivy rash.

These types of poison ivy remedies to try as soon as you have been exposed to poison ivy can include:

  • applying a product such as Tecnu Extreme Poison Ivy Scrub to the exposed area. Apply as directed on the label with a small amount of water, gently rub it over the exposed skin, and then rinse it off with water
  • washing with Zanfel Poison Ivy Wash
  • applying rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol to exposed areas of skin and then washing it off

To be most effective, or sometimes to even have any chance at working, you typically have to try and wash off the urushiol after being exposed to poison ivy within 5 to 20 minutes -- the sooner the better.

It might also be helpful to see your pediatrician at the first sign of a poison ivy rash if your child is prone to severe poison ivy reactions, as an early, aggressive treatment with steroids may be helpful.

What are Common Poison Ivy Home Remedies?

Poison ivy home remedies can help to control and reduce the main symptom of poison ivy -- itching.

These home remedies can include:

  • cold, wet compresses made with Domeboro powder packets (modified Burow's Solution) that can be applied to itchy areas of your child's skin for 15 to 30 minutes several times each day
  • cool or lukewarm colloidal oatmeal baths, soaks in a modified Burow's solution, or tepid bath in one cup of cornstarch or baking soda
  • anti-itch creams, including Calamine Lotion, Caladryl Clear Topical Analgesic Skin Lotion, Itch-X Anti-Itch Gel with Soothing Aloe Vera, or Aveeno Anti-Itch Cream with Natural Colloidal Oatmeal
  • oral antihistamines to help control itching, such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine)
  • topical steroid creams, including over-the-counter strength steroid creams

What are other Poison Ivy Remedies?

For more severe cases of poison ivy, especially those that involve the face or multiple areas of a child's body, other poison ivy remedies that can be prescribed by your pediatrician are more likely to be helpful, including:

  • oral antihistamines to help control itching, such as Atarax (hydroxyzine), a prescription strength oral antihistamine
  • topical steroid creams, including prescription-strength medium- to high-potency steroids
  • oral steroids, such as Orapred (syrup or disintegrating tablets) or Prednisone (pills), that are usually taken twice a day for at least 7 to 14 days
  • a steroid shot, Kenalog (triamcinolone acetonide)

Is Poison Ivy Contagious?

Parents often think that poison ivy is contagious because, like many red, itchy rashes, it looks contagious. Unlike other skin rashes, such as scabies or chicken pox, you can't get poison ivy by touching someone else's poison ivy rash, though.

Urushiol can bind and penetrate the skin very quickly, which is why poison ivy experts say that you only have between 5 and 20 minutes to have any chance of washing it off and avoiding, or at least reducing, the poison ivy rash. In addition to not being contagious, that is why you can't spread poison ivy around after you have been exposed.

Why is my Poison Ivy Spreading?

After being exposed to poison ivy, susceptible kids often develop the classic poison ivy rash on one or more small areas of their skin. Over the next few days to a week, the rash typically then spreads to many other areas of their body.

This pattern makes many people think that there is something on the rash or in the blisters that the child spreads over their body while scratching.

You don't actually spread the poison ivy once you break out in the rash, though.

What is actually happening when it seems that poison ivy is spreading is that the skin that broke out in a rash sooner likely just had more exposure to the urushiol in poison ivy that triggers the rash. Other areas of the body that break out later probably had less contact or is an area of skin that is less reactive to urushiol, perhaps because the skin is thicker in that area of the body.

Urushiol can sometimes remain on clothing, which can continue to trigger a poison ivy rash over and over every time someone touches or wears the clothing. Or a child can continue to be exposed to poison ivy outside if he doesn't recognize the poison ivy plants.

Having some urushiol on your fingernails from the initial exposure might also be a way that you could spread the rash around more, as you touch other areas of your body that weren't exposed the first time.

Sources:

Auerbach: Wilderness Medicine, 5th ed.

Froberg B. Plant poisoning. Emerg Med Clin North Am. 01-MAY-2007; 25(2): 375-433

Habif: Clinical Dermatology, 5th ed.

Mark BJ. Allergic contact dermatitis. Med Clin North Am. 01-JAN-2006; 90(1): 169-85.

Tanner TL. Rhus (Toxicodendron) dermatitis. Prim Care. 01-JUN-2000; 27(2): 493-502.

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