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How to treat and avoid poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac

Lori Wilson is a Home & Living columnist, as well as a freelance writer in Los Angeles, who after a lifetime of enduring harsh Michigan winters, relishes the warmth year round.

Watch out for poison oak & ivy

The summer is a time for camping, hiking, gardening, and enjoying the outdoors. Unfortunately, this can also become a popular time for poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac outbreaks. Upon your skin touching these plants' oils, a red itchy rash can show up in the form of lines and streaks, or blisters and hives. In order to help prevent breaking out in an annoying rash, keep the following information in mind and enjoy the outdoors!

Got poison? First things first

If you come into contact with poison ivy, oak or sumac, wash your skin as soon as possible with cold, running water. And hurry! Do this within minutes of coming into contact with the plant to prevent the oil from absorbing into the skin. (The faster you remove the plant oils, the less severe your reaction will be.) Avoid vigorously scrubbing the area or using hot water right after exposure, since these may further open pores or cause more irritation to the skin.


What about soap? Advice from the experts is mixed. Some say don't use soap, others recommend it -- and some say wash with cold water only as soon as possible, then use soap in a warm shower as thereafter.


Watch out for poison oak & ivyAlso remember to wash the clothing and shoes you were wearing when you came into contact with the poison ivy immediately after discovering (or suspecting) a breakout, so you don't spread the rash all over your body.


*An overview:
1. Wash yourself immediately with COLD water
2. As soon as possible after you can fully undress, take a shower with WARM WATER.
3. Wash your clothing and other items with HOT water (you might want to run it through twice or at least add an extra rinse).

Comfort measures

"People with poison ivy tend to find relief from cool baths or cool compresses," say Hammer, who also recommends rubbing the affected area with an ice cube for relief. Be sure to let the area air dry after massaging it with ice -- this can help reduce itching and blister oozing.


The ever-popular calamine lotion is also a treatment option, and several common household and over-the-counter products may help dry up the oozing blisters and/or help relieve itching:

  • oatmeal or cornstarch baths
  • baking soda and cold, brewed coffee
  • baking soda and white vinegar
  • calamine lotion
  • zinc acetate/zinc carbonate/zinc oxide
  • oral antihistamines

For mild rashes, wet compresses or soaking in cool water may be soothing. And as counter-intuitive as it may seem, extra-hot showers (with the water on hard) can actually feel great because it seems to relieve that deep itch.


Don't scratch the blisters, as terribly ichy as they may feel. Scratching the blisters open can ultimately cause more pain -- and since your fingernails/fingers might carry germs, you could get an infection -- bad enough on its own, but which can also lead to scarring.

When to get help

Most cases of poison ivy can be handled at home. In rare cases, however, poison ivy can be extremely serious -- or even deadly. "Occasionally, poison ivy can become a more severe situation in someone who's highly sensitized to the reaction, or if someone is exposed to a large amount of the oil," Hammer says.


More specifically, "If [you] are experiencing a more severe poison ivy reaction, specifically involving the face or the genital area, or there's significant swelling pain or irritation that disrupts sleep or daily activities." Your doctor may prescribe steroids to help reduce the itching, and discomfort/pain. (Have you had a bad cause of poison oak/ivy before? The American Academy of Dermatology recommends anyone who has had a severe reaction in the past contact a dermatologist as soon as possible after a new exposure.)

*POISON IVY MYTH: Have you heard that you can "catch" poison oak/ivy from someone who's infected? Not true! The rash will only spread to another person if you have oil on your hand and touch him or her, says Hammer. Once the oil has been removed from your skin, it is no longer possible to spread the rash to other areas of your body. The fluid that seeps from the sores/blisters brought on by poison ivy are not contagious. Assuming the urushiol has been completely washed off, cannot catch or spread poison ivy/oak after it appears, because the oil from the plant has already been absorbed and/or washed off the skin.

NEXT PAGE: Recognizing the plants and avoiding a reaction

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