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Poison ivy: Treatment tips from the trenches

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

A scourge of summer

Until the last couple of summers, I had very little experience with poison ivy. I had trouble even identifying it! It's not that poison ivy didn't exist in my home state, it just wasn't common in my area of the state. Where I live now, poison ivy is much more common and much more of an issue, some would even say a rite of passage. Even so, I -- and my kids -- managed to avoid it. Until last summer, that is.
Little Girl and Poison Ivy

Last summer, while playing with a friend, Woody brushed up against some poison ivy and I was thrust into the world of Toxicodendron radicans. But not right away. It was several days before the first small lesions spread enough for us to recognize what it was.

Itch, itch, itch

After a trip to the drug store, we tried several efforts to keep the rash in check, but before we knew it, there were lesions on every part of his body. Woody was miserably itchy: he couldn't sit still and had a hard time sleeping. Finally, a trip to the doctor for some ideas, after which we were slowly able to get the poison ivy under control.

>> Recognize poison ivy and remove it from your outdoor spaces

An education in ivy

After that experience, I decided to learn about poison ivy -- how to identify it, avoid it, and, if necessary, deal with it. I became even more careful with the kids and checking out vegetation we were around. I vowed I'd be able to head off such an experience in the future. That attitude -- because the best way to deal with poison ivy is not to get it in the first place -- failed to take into account a pre-teen's emerging independence and not wanting to tell his mom that he's got this itchy spot on his torso. Until it really develops, that is.

Yup, Alfs has poison ivy, and bad. My education is being put to the test right now. We are in a multi-day effort to contain, control, and to begin the healing process.

>> How to avoid dangerous plants: Poison oak, poison ivy and poison sumac

Being prepared

So how does one deal with poison ivy? Carefully, of course. And...

  • Most importantly, know what poison ivy looks like so you can avoid it. Poison ivy is at its most potentially irritable when the leaves are shiny.
  • If you are going to be in a wooded area with poison ivy potential, wear long pants and long sleeves to protect your skin as much as possible. However, it's still possible to get a reaction to poison ivy from oils left on your clothing, so take care when removing the clothing in case you did brush up against any poison ivy.
  • If you know you have come in contact with poison ivy, try to wash it off with soap and cold water within ten minutes to try to head off a reaction. (Get some more tips on how to deal with a poison ivy or poison oak exposure here.)
  • If you have poison ivy in your yard, ask for help from a professional to get rid of it, if possible. You really want to get all of it.
  • If, despite efforts, you do get poison ivy, try not to itch. Notice I said try -- I know it's almost impossible. But when you scratch, you inflame the rash and make it worse.
  • Look for products that can help reduce the urge to itch. There a number of products on the market. I personally avoid using products like topical Benadryl because it is easy to use too much, and it is a medication with side effects.
  • If the lesion is "weepy" -- that is, if it is oozing clear liquid -- consider keeping the area covered with sterile gauze or a bandage. Change dressings regularly, and also change sheets and towels frequently while the lesions are at their worst. 
  • If you still can't get the lesions under control, see your doctor. He or she may be able to prescribe a steroid-based treatment to stem your body's reaction to the poison ivy irritants.

I think we're heading off to the doctor's office tomorrow. Alfs' torso is looking quite awful, so I think we need some medical help, but at least I think my efforts helped prevent the poison ivy rash from being even worse.

More about poison ivy & poison oak

5 things you don’t know about poison ivy

How to avoid dangerous plants: Poison oak, poison ivy and poison sumac

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


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