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Ditch the Itch A Poison Ivy Primer

Monday, Jul 07, 2014

We love being outdoors in the summer. That brings us closer to pesky plants like poison ivy, oak and sumac. Our Doylestown Hospital health expert, Cathy Hogan, MSN, CRNP COHN-S, shares some tips on prevention and treatment.

Learn How to Identify Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac

You can find lots of pictures on the internet. All of these plants are "woody" plants/vines that grow in predominantly wooded areas.

You should wear long pants, shirts, socks and fully enclosed footwear when walking in these areas. Wear gloves when working around these poisonous plants. It is best if you wear plastic gloves over cotton gloves. The urushiol (the oily, sticky resin that causes the rash) in poison ivy can seep through cotton gloves, and make you susceptible to contracting the rash.

Another way to prevent the oil from getting on your skin is to use a good barrier cream, like Stokoguard or Ivy Block. Presently there is no vaccination.

Urushiol, Poison Ivy Oil and You

The oil from the poisonous plants can be carried on pets, and interestingly enough, pets are not affected by it. Ponds, streams, rivers and lakes can harbor the oils from these plants without ever seeing the offending plant. In addition, oil transferred from the plant to other objects months or even years ago – such as gardening tools – can cause a reaction.

What to Do if You Are Exposed to Poison Ivy, Oak or Sumac

Wash exposed skin immediately after contact. Wash in cold water, since warm or hot water helps the toxins get into your pores. Also, if you think your fingernails may be harboring the toxic oil, use a toothbrush under the nail to remove the toxin, then throw away the toothbrush.

Remove and wash clothes (separately from other clothes) and any items exposed to the oil.

How to Treat a Mild Case of Poison Ivy

Apply calamine lotion 4 to 6 times a day to the affected area. Anesthetics and antihistamines applied to the skin play no role in alleviating the symptoms of the rash; however, oral antihistamines like Benadryl can offer minor relief, and probably should be taken at bedtime to offset the side effect of drowsiness. You can apply 1% hydrocortisone cream to decrease the inflammation.

Try This Treatment For More Severe Cases of Poison Ivy

If the rash is severe, meaning on a large part of the body or the face, steroids may be advisable and your pediatrician or physician will direct you appropriately. However, steroids should be reserved for the worst cases.

Also, if you do not have any open areas, you can use rubbing alcohol, which can prevent further spread of the toxic oil. In addition, Betadine can be painted on the area and left to dry to decrease the itch.

Another idea to pull the fluid from the blisters is to make a paste from Betadine and baking soda. Put the paste over the blisters then allow it to dry and crack off. Make sure the area has dried before putting on clothing to prevent staining from the Betadine.

Soothing the Itch

Oatmeal baths are comforting, but in a pinch good old-fashioned oatmeal added to lukewarm water works.

It is important not to scratch the rash to prevent bacteria from getting in. Do not pop blisters even if they are weeping. You should cover them. Cut your fingernails short, resist scratching, or wear socks over your hands to prevent opening areas up.

A comfort measure that works well is to apply ice, but not directly to your skin. Use a cover like a towel over the ice pack. Also, aloe vera secretes a cooling gel from its leaves. Just snap a leaf off and apply the gel directly to the rash. If you buy aloe vera in the store, make sure it contains at least 90% aloe.

Remember This When Dealing With Poison Ivy

  • The best option for controlling the spread of poison ivy is to remove the plants by hand, as the sprays and killers are not environmentally friendly.
  • Never burn the plants, since the oil is vaporized and can be inhaled, causing havoc in your lungs, possibly leading to respiratory failure.
  • Don't skip the step of washing your clothes or gardening shoes and equipment, since poison ivy and oak residue can stay on objects for up to 5 years.
  • If you develop a fever more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, see yellow scabs or pus, or have tenderness over the affected areas, see your doctor, you may have an infection.

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