Poison Ivy Prevention: How You Can Ditch the Itch this Summer

A poison ivy plant growing along the ground
Poison ivy is identifiable by its three tear shaped leaves, leading to the cautionary adage: "Leaves of three, let them be."

Summer is here and with the warm weather and longer days, you’re probably itching to go enjoy the great outdoors. Whether you’re taking a nature hike, heading to a camp ground, or getting the gardening and yardwork done, there’s one particular plant you should always try to avoid – Poison Ivy.

Part of the Sumac family, poison ivy grows in temperate areas throughout the U.S. except Hawaii and Alaska and there are about 30 different species of the plant. 

Poison ivy can grow as a climbing vine or as a low-spreading shrub often nearby bodies of water, and it is most easily identifiable by its three, tear-shaped leaves leading to the cautionary adage: “Leaves of three, let them be.” In the fall, the plant produces white or yellow berries.

The leaves, stem and roots of poison ivy, and its “relatives” – poison oak (western U.S) and poison sumac (southern U.S) – all contain urushiol, an oil that can cause an itchy, burning and blistering rash for some people when it comes in contact with the skin.

What to do if you come in contact with poison ivy

The rash that develops from exposure to poison ivy is the body’s allergic reaction to the urushiol, which can come from touching the plant or clothing, tools, equipment or even a pet that has come in contact with its oil. 

Which is why it’s so important to thoroughly wash exposed skin with soap and water as quickly as possible after any contact with poison ivy. Because residue from the oil can linger on clothing, tools or even a pet’s fur, anything that has touched the plant should also be washed to avoid developing a rash or possible reinfection later.

Symptoms and duration of a poison ivy rash

How quickly after exposure a rash appears and its severity can vary from person to person.  For people who have had a poison ivy rash before, the reaction usually occurs within 12 to 48 hours after exposure. For those who have never had the rash, it could take as long as two or three weeks to appear.

Signs of a poison ivy rash usually include red, itchy, swollen skin that develops blisters. The blisters can break open leaking fluid before crusting over and flaking off. The rash is not contagious and cannot be spread to other people or to other areas of the body.  

Most rashes clear up in two to three weeks but for those who have never had a reaction, the rash can last longer. More exposure to poison ivy increases the severity of one’s allergic reaction, so it’s best to avoid touching the plants.

Treatment for a poison ivy rash

Because a poison ivy rash is very itchy, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends using calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream to alleviate the itching.  

Other ways to relieve the itch is to apply cool compresses to the effected skin or bathe in a cool bath with a colloidal oatmeal-based product or baking soda.

If persistent itching is disturbing sleep, antihistamines like Benadryl can help.  For non-drowsy relief, over-the-counter products like Claritin or Alavert are recommended.

For widespread or severe poison ivy rashes, health care providers can prescribe a corticosteroid like prednisone to reduce swelling, or an oral antibiotic if the rash has become infected.

When to seek medical help

If after a week to 10 days the rash has not shown signs of clearing up, appears to be getting worse, or has become infected, you should contact your doctor or visit Health Express urgent care.

Other complications that could require medical attention include:

  • Difficulty breathing due to inhaling smoke from burning poison ivy
  • A severe or widespread rash, or one affecting the eyes, mouth or genitals
  • Blisters that are oozing pus
  • A fever greater than 100 F

Preventing future exposure

The best way to prevent a poison ivy rash is by learning how to identify the plant and avoid touching it.

Wear clothing that protects your skin including long sleeves, pants, socks and gloves when in areas near poison ivy.

If you do come in contact with poison ivy, immediately wash exposed skin, including under your fingernails to remove the urushiol oil.

Carefully remove and wash contaminated clothing (shoes and laces, too) with detergent in warm water.

Bathe pets that have come in contact with poison ivy plants, while wearing rubber gloves.

Thoroughly clean any contaminated gardening tools or equipment, as urushiol oil can remain on surfaces for months and cause a poison ivy rash.

Remove or kill poison ivy plants in your yard using a herbicide or pulling them out by the roots while wearing gloves. Do not try to burn poison ivy plants as the smoke can carry the irritating urushiol oil.

Use an over-the-counter poison ivy barrier cream to protect your skin from the oil that causes the rash.

For more about poison ivy reactions, treatment and prevention visit the Poison Control Center.


Christopher Cannizzarro, PA-C is a physician assistant with Health Express.  Learn more about urgent care and other services at Health Express.