Most of us have heard the rhyme, “Leaves of three, leave it be.” There’s a good reason for the warning, as the itchy rash that stems from poison ivy isn’t fun and can last for days or even weeks. Unfortunately, even the most diligent of hikers can run afoul of this threat. Because it is so common, it is important to know how to treat poison ivy rashes.
What is Poison Ivy?
Poison ivy is a wild plant found throughout much of North America and is quite common in the eastern and midwestern states. It likes partial sunlight, so you’ll often find it at the edges of the forest or in areas that have dappled sunshine. It can grow as a shrub or as a vine.
The leaves grow in sets of three that together form something of a triangle shape. All three leaves grow from the same spot on the branch. The center leaf is usually larger than the other two and the leaves are rarely symmetrical, meaning one side of the leaf isn’t usually identical to the other side.
The plant itself isn’t poisonous, but it secretes a very sticky oil called urushiol. It is that chemical that causes rashes and blisters. Even just a mild touch can leave it on your skin and end up giving you grief. You might not even notice it right away, as the discomfort can take hours, or even days, to surface.
You need to protect yourself if you’re going to be in an area that has poison ivy. Gloves are essential. You should also wear long sleeves and long pants. The idea here is to avoid having any part of the plant touch bare skin. Further, when you take the clothing off at the end of the day, avoid touching it with bare hands until it has been washed. Shoes or boots should be washed off as well. More than one hiker has inadvertently gotten the oil on their fingers when unlacing a boot, then transferred it to their forehead.
The symptoms of poison ivy include reddened, itchy skin, often with painful blistering. Knowing how to treat poison ivy will go a long way toward providing comfort as well as reducing the risk of the situation getting worse.
How to Treat Poison Ivy
If you find that you’ve touched poison ivy or been in contact with the oily residue, take action as soon as you can. The first step is to wash the area with warm water and dish soap if available. Dish soap is made to handle grease and oil and can help treat urushiol. Lacking dish soap, use whatever soap is available. If you don’t have soap, you can use alcohol wipes. You need to eliminate any trace of the oil, otherwise, you’re just going to continue to make the rash worse.
As a practical matter, there isn’t a cure for poison ivy rashes. All you’re really able to do is treat the symptoms until the reaction subsides. Which, unfortunately, can take several days to a few weeks, depending upon the severity. Applying calamine lotion and taking oral antihistamines can help reduce itching and blistering. For this reason, both should be in your first aid kit. Some antihistamines, such as Benadryl, can cause drowsiness. These might help you sleep when the itching is keeping you awake.
Home Remedies to Treat Poison Ivy
There are a few different ways to treat poison ivy at home. The goal is to treat the poison ivy rash and reduce skin irritation. While scratching the itch won’t spread the rash, it can lead to other problems, including injuring the skin and even scarring in some cases.
Here are some options to consider in reducing the itch:
There are some essential oils that might provide relief, such as peppermint, chamomile, or eucalyptus. However, it is important to dilute the oil with some sort of carrier, such as a cream, so as to not damage the skin.
For those who want to know how to treat poison ivy naturally, you can try cool, wet compresses several times a day. Keep the compress on the affected area for 15-30 minutes or so. Soaking in a cool bath with either oatmeal or baking soda can also help with the itching.
How to Treat Severe Poison Ivy
In most cases, home treatment will be sufficient. However, there are times when medical attention should be sought. Here are signs that you should get to a doctor:
· Pus or yellow scabs on the rash
· Fever over 100°F
· Rash that covers a large portion of the body
· Rash on the face or genitals
· Problems breathing
In severe cases, your doctor may prescribe an oral steroid, such as prednisone.
Using Steroids to Treat Poison Ivy
Topical steroid creams, such as 1% hydrocortisone which is available over the counter anywhere in the United States, are often minimally effective at reducing itching. In severe cases or situations where the rash covers a substantial percentage of the skin, particularly involving the face or genitals, stronger steroid ointments may be prescribed. That said, oral steroids or injections tend to work better in those cases. In the case of prescriptions, it is very important to follow the instructions and take the medication for the full run. Stopping short can result in the rash coming back.
How to Treat Swollen Eyes from Poison Ivy
Almost everyone has a bad habit of touching their face and rubbing their eyes countless times a day. If you unknowingly get urushiol oil on your hands and touch your face, you’re in for some serious hurt. While it isn’t likely to have any sort of long-term effect on your vision, you should seek medical attention. Your doctor will probably prescribe some form of anti-inflammatory medication to reduce the swelling.
If you know you’ll be handling poison ivy, wear some sort of eye protection. Not only will it prevent a stray leaf from getting to your eye, but it will also be a barrier between your eyes and your gloves.
Poison Ivy Disposal
If you are clearing land and have to deal with poison ivy, it is important to handle it properly. Don’t pile it up and burn it. All that does is put the urushiol oil into the air, where it can travel for miles.
So, what happens if you inhale urushiol oil? It will irritate your nose and throat. That’s bad enough, but it will also cause those airways to swell, narrowing the space and diminishing the amount of air you’re able to get into your lungs. This is a very serious situation and medical help should be sought immediately.
Because the oil persists for so long, you should not compost poison ivy. The best solution is to pull it from the ground and place it into heavy-duty garbage bags. Once the bag is full or you removed all of the plants, seal the bag tightly and put it out with your trash pickup. When pulling the plants, try to get as much of the root as you can, and be sure to clean up all of the leaves from the ground. After the work is done, carefully remove your clothing and wash it to remove the oil from the garments.
While no one looks forward to having to deal with an itchy rash or blistered skin, knowing how to treat poison ivy will help you to be better prepared, should you or a family member end up crossing paths with it.