Poison ivy is a weed best known for causing skin irritation. In extreme cases, it can cause life-threatening allergic reactions.
Irritation usually resolves on its own, but may require prescription medication or more serious intervention.
What happens during a reaction?
Itching, Redness, Swelling, and BlistersPoison ivy causes persistent itching and visible irritation. Eventually, blisters will begin to ooze, but this does not contribute to the spread of irritation.
Difficulty BreathingPeople sometimes destroy poison ivy by burning it. This method of control is discouraged because inhaling the smoke can cause respiratory issues.
Severe Allergic ReactionExtreme exposure or sensitivity can result in an allergic reaction requiring emergency care. Anaphylaxis can be characterized by severe swelling, shortness of breath, a drop in blood pressure, and a racing pulse.
A Common Plant in North America
Poison ivy grows in most of the continental United States. It has two close cousins: poison oak and poison sumac. Poison oak grows along the West Coast and in the Southeast, including Texas. Poison sumac is mainly found in swamps of the Southeast.
All three plants produce urushiol, the sticky oil (which is not actually poisonous) that causes reactions. Due to control efforts, these plants are much less likely to be found in public places or near homes.
How Poison Ivy Reactions Occur
Direct Contact with Poison Ivy
Urushiol can be transferred through contact with any part of a poison ivy plant. It cannot be transferred through contact with an active lesion on yourself or another person.
Urushiol remains active years after it is deposited on a surface. A pet that is allowed outdoors could carry urushiol on its fur. Strong winds can also carry urushiol and affect those who are very sensitive.
Avoiding Poison Ivy Reactions
Know Your "Poison" PlantsBy learning the physical characteristics of plants that produce urushiol, you can avoid physical contact or airborne exposure. An easy rhyme to help you remember: "Leaves of three, let it be."
Dress AppropriatelyIf you plan to visit an outdoor environment that is not landscaped, such as a trail or campsite, reduce your risk of exposure by wearing long pants and sleeves.
If you are extremely allergic to poison ivy, you should carry an epinephrine auto-injector (such as an EpiPen®), which can provide relief until you can receive urgent treatment.
Identifying the Cause of Irritation
Skin irritation usually occurs 12 to 72 hours after exposure. It will often begin as red streaks tracing the way in which the plant contacted your skin. Eventually, itching and blistering will follow. A doctor will be able to easily determine whether poison ivy is the cause.
Finding Relief: Bathing and Medications
Clean Your SkinIf you think you have touched poison ivy, cleaning the area with an alcohol wipe and taking a thorough bath within an hour of exposure can minimize irritation.
OTC MedicationsYou can minimize itching and inflammation by using over-the-counter lotions, allergy medication, or a cold compress.
Prescription MedicationsFor more pronounced symptoms, your doctor can prescribe injections, oral meds, and topical treatments containing steroids.
Seek Immediate Medical Care If You:
Get Educated and Prepared
Poison ivy is not always serious, but it is never pleasant. When enjoying the outdoors, know how to identify these plants and take simple precautions to avoid a reaction. If you have recently ventured into greener, unkempt pastures and are beginning to feel an itch, stay mindful and see a doctor if you have any concerns.