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Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac Tips

While there are many great things about spending time outdoors during the summer, poison ivy, oak or sumac rashes can put a damper on the fun. Shannon Fegan, Certified Physician Assistant at Keystone Urgent Care, shares some advice on what you should do if you come into contact with these plants.

What are the symptoms of poison ivy, oak and sumac contact?

The symptoms include developing a red rash within a few days of contact with the plant. This can develop as bumps, streaks, patches or even blisters that can leak a clear fluid (It is important to know the fluid is not contagious and does not further the spread of the rash).  Swelling and itching also usually occur.  When respiratory contact is made through the plants or vines being burned, you may experience a sore throat, shortness of breath and wheezing. Symptoms from exposure can last 1-3 weeks or more.

What should you do if you think you came into contact with one of these plants?

You should immediately rinse your skin with a degreasing soap (dish liquid), detergent or specialized poison plant wash and lots of water so the urushiol (the oil on the plant that causes the reactions) doesn’t spread further or dry on your skin. Do not scrub the skin vigorously.  Clean under your fingernails with a brush as well.  All clothing should be washed in hot water with detergent, separately from all of your other laundry items.  Also, clean any gardening tools that may have come into contact with the plants with rubbing alcohol, as the urushiol can stay active on the tools for up to five years.

How should you treat a reaction?

You can use cool compresses, calamine lotion, hydrocortisone topical cream, oatmeal baths and oral Benadryl (the topical antihistamine creams or lotions can sometimes cause a reaction that makes your skin more itchy or irritated). Always consult your primary care provider before giving a child Benadryl, as special dosing adjustments are needed.

Are there ways to prevent a reaction?

The most important way to prevent a reaction is avoiding contact with the plants in the first place, and if you think you have come into contact with one of these plants, following the above instructions as soon as possible. There are some skin creams that can be applied prior to exposure if you think you will be in an area you may come into contact with the plants.  Creams and lotions containing bentoquatam are very good at preventing the plant oils from getting on your skin and causing a reaction.  These creams must be thoroughly washed off and reapplied twice daily.  If you know you will be hiking, gardening or working in an area you could be exposed to one of these plants or their oils, be proactive.  Wear long sleeves, pants, boots and vinyl gloves (latex and rubber gloves do not always protect fully).  Do not burn the plants or vines.  If you must burn them, a particulate respirator mask is important to prevent lung irritation and severe reactions.

How can it be spread?

Poison ivy, oak and sumac are spread by contact with their oil, which is released when the leaf or other plant parts are bruised, damaged or burned. Just brushing up against a plant can cause this.  Exposure to an amount less than the size of a single grain of salt will cause a reaction in 80-90% of the population.  This oil can cling to tools, clothing, livestock and pets, so you can develop a reaction by touching one of these things as opposed to direct contact with the plant itself.  It is a myth that you can get “poison” from touching the rash or scratching at the areas; however, scratching the rash can increase the risk for secondary bacterial skin infections to occur.

When should you seek medical treatment?

You should seek medical treatment if your rash is severe, most of your body is affected, your face or genitals are affected, you have a lot of swelling, your rash oozes pus or shows any other signs of being infected or your rash does not get better in 2-3 weeks. If you are not certain whether or not your rash has been caused by poison ivy, oak or sumac, have it evaluated.  Your healthcare provider would much rather see and evaluate the problem for you and provide treatment options, rather than have you worry unnecessarily or allow the condition to worsen.  If you are unable to see your primary care provider, an urgent care or walk-in clinic is a good alternative.

 

This article contains general information only and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment or care by a qualified health care provider.