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How to Identify & Treat Poison Ivy

Monica Beyer is a mom of four and has been writing professionally since 2000, when her first book, Baby Talk, was published. Her main area of interest is attachment parenting and all that goes with it, including breastfeeding, co-sleepin...

What you need to know about identifying & treating poison ivy

Poison ivy seems to be a pointless plant, laying around in wait of unsuspecting people who only want to spend time in the great outdoors while it plots the demise of your clear skin and comfort. While not everyone is sensitive to its oil resin (called urushiol, which is found on the leaves, stems and roots of poison ivy), those who are know how awful it can be to discover they've been exposed.

The poison ivy plant is widespread, hardy and quite prolific. While it can be found within forested areas, it adores hanging out along paths, roadways and other areas where people and pets frequently frolic — like the edges of your yard.

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Identifying the plant is fairly easy, though there are other three-leafed plants that are definitely not poison ivy out there. To be honest, the worn-out phrase, "Leaves of three? Let it be!" is probably the safest bit of advice to keep in mind as you're taking a hike, doing yard work or playing in a park.

"The plant usually has three broad, spoon-shaped leaves or leaflets and grows as both a climbing or low spreading vine through the grass and shrubs," says Dr. James Wantuck of PlushCare. Take note, though. It's not always green, either — the leaves turn red in the fall.

Identifying the rash

Poison ivy rashes are often pretty distinct and can cause a load of discomfort. "The classical rash is a red blistering eruption seen in straight lines due to the way the plant brushes against the skin," says dermatologist Dr. Fayne L. Frey. She also notes that it can be more spread out if it stems from touching clothing or a pet who has been in contact with it.

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Unfortunately, a poison ivy rash doesn't always stay put, especially since, well, it's itchy, and scratching helps spread it around your body. There is a bit of good news, though, Frey says — it's not contagious to other people. Oh, and while it may be tempting to do so, resist the urge to pile it up and set fire to it, as she says the smoke can irritate your nasal passages or lungs.

Treating poison ivy

If you realize you've been in contact with poison ivy, there are a few measures to take.

  • Wash the affected body part ASAP with soap and water. "This won’t keep you from getting a reaction, but it will reduce the severity," notes Wantuck.
  • Wash anything else that may have come into contact with poison ivy, says Frey, including clothes, garden tools and even the family pet.
  • Mild cases can be treated at home using calamine lotion, over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream and/or oral antihistamines.
  • Cool compresses can help alleviate the symptoms, says Frey
  • Wantuck suggests, "Another proactive measure people can take to combat pesky reactions to poison ivy is to use an over-the-counter barrier cream containing bentoquatam. Bentoquatam absorbs urushiol and can lessen reactions."

There are some cases that do need the attention of a medical professional, however. Get in to be seen if you experience the following:

  • Severe or widespread rash
  • Rash that affects the face or genitals
  • Blisters that ooze pus
  • Fever

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While not everyone can "get" poison ivy (Wantuck says, "Approximately 85 percent of Americans are allergic to poison ivy, which means that 15 percent don’t experience a reaction when they come into contact with the plant."), it still means the potential is there for tons of folks to experience this itchy, awful, blistering rash that comes from a seemingly harmless plant. But this isn't one of those things you should risk testing on your own — if you come across a plant with three leaves, just don't touch it.

What you need to know about identifying & treating poison ivy
Image: Getty Images/Design: Ashley Britton
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