6 Best Ways To Avoid Getting Poison Ivy

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A lot of our patients and their families think that summertime is the worst season for contracting poison ivy, but actually it’s highly active 3 out of the 4 seasons: spring, summer and fall. In fact, here at Westchester Health Pediatrics we tend to see a spike in poison ivy cases this time of year (mid to late fall) because many families go apple picking. NOTE: Poison ivy loves to hug the bases of apple trees so be very careful.

Since so many people have a reaction to poison ivy, we thought this was a good time to remind everyone how to recognize this skin-irritating and potentially dangerous plant, and provide tips for hopefully avoiding it.

6 common sense ways to avoid poison ivy

Mason Gomberg-001R WEB72

Mason Gomberg, MD

  1. Steer clear of areas where you know poison ivy grows.
    It typically grows as a vine or shrub, and it can be found throughout much of North America (except in the desert, Alaska and Hawaii). It grows in open fields, wooded areas, on the roadside and along riverbanks. It can also be found in urban areas, such as parks or backyards.
  2. Cover up.
    If you know you will be walking/hiking in areas where poison ivy is present, cover all exposed skin with closed shoes, socks, long pants, long sleeves and gloves.
  3. Wash your skin asap.
    Immediately wash skin that has come in contact with the plant. This may help remove some of the oil from your skin and lessen the severity of your reaction.
  4. Wash the clothes you were wearing, along with anything that may have touched the plant. Although the rash can’t spread, the oil that caused it can.
  5. Scrub under your fingernails.
    You can spread poison ivy to other parts of your body if the oil is on your fingers. Try not to scratch because this will only make things worse. While it may bring immediate comfort, scratching will only prolong symptoms. You may even develop an infection if you break the skin, causing itching to intensify.
  6. Wash gardening tools and other outdoor items with soap and water
    that may have come in contact with the plant. Unfortunately, oil from poison ivy can remain potent for as long as 5 years.

Poison ivy changes color with the seasons, so know what to look for

Just when you think you know how to identify poison ivy, it changes color. Depending on the season, its leaves are:

  • Reddish in the spring
  • Green in the summerImage result
  • Yellow, orange or red in the fall

The main thing to remember is the old saying: leaves of three, let it be. In addition, with some types of poison ivy, the leaves have notched edges. With others, the edges are smooth. It can grow as a bush or vine, can grow up trees, and sometimes has white berries. Plus, the leaves can have a shiny sheen to them or be dull. Nature doesn’t make it easy!

Important facts about poison ivy

  1. Poison ivy isn’t really poisonous.
    The plant itself isn’t the problem, it’s the plant’s sticky, long-lasting oil called urushiol that causes an itchy, blistering rash after it touches your skin. Even slight contact, such as brushing up against the leaves, exposes your skin to the oil.
  2. A poison ivy rash is not contagious.
    Once you have washed the urushiol oil off your skin, the rash itself is not contagious. It may continue to spread due to varying amounts of exposure on different areas of the body, but touching the rash does not cause it to spread. The rash usually peaks within a week, can last as long as 3 weeks, and looks like patches or streaks of red, raised blisters.
  3. Urushiol adheres to your skin within minutes.
    If you know you’ve come into contact with poison ivy, wash the area with lukewarm water and soap. If there’s no water available, rubbing alcohol or alcohol wipes can remove it. Keep the area cool, dry and clean. Thoroughly wash your clothes and clean your boots or shoes, and also hose down any garden tools that might have touched the plant.
  4. Urushiol can cling to your dog or cat’s fur and rub off on you.
    If your pet has been in areas where poison ivy is growing and then rubs against your skin, you can definitely have a reaction. To avoid this, bathe your pet with soap and cool water wearing gloves, then locate the poison ivy plants he/she is coming in contact with and remove them.
  5. See your doctor if a rash develops close to your eyes or is widespread over your body.
    Once a rash appears, keep it clean, dry and cool. Calamine lotion, an antihistamine such as Benadryl, and/or hydrocortisone cream can help control itching. Cool compresses or baths with baking soda or oatmeal can also soothe the rash. Don’t scratch—it won’t spread the rash, but can cause scars or infection. There are also prescription medications you can take by mouth that will help with swelling and itching. If you experience a severe reaction in addition to a rash, such as nausea, fever, fainting, shortness of breath, extreme soreness at the rash site or swollen lymph nodes, call 911 or get to an emergency room immediately.
  6. Never burn poison ivy. 
    Particles of urushiol remain in the fire’s smoke and can severely aggravate your eyes, nose and respiratory tract, as well as your skin. Instead of burning poison ivy to get rid of it, completely cover yourself with clothing and dig out the plant, getting as much of the root as possible. Then put it in a plastic trash bag and throw it away. Weed whacking poison ivy plants is also not recommended because when the leaves and stems are cut, urushiol is released into the air as vapor and can easily come into contact with your eyes, lungs and skin. Alternatively, a plant killer may work on poison ivy but be sure to read the label carefully and use it at the right time of the year. Remember: Urushiol remains active, even on dead plants, so be careful when handling them.
  7. Subsequent exposures to poison ivy are usually worse each time. That’s why it’s really important to try to avoid coming into contact with it in the first place.
  8. When using OTC cortisone creams, apply 3 times a day for at least one week.

If your child is having a severe reaction to poison ivy, please come see us

If your child has developed a rash from poison ivy that is not going away or is getting worse, please make an appointment with Westchester Health Pediatrics to see one of our pediatricians as soon as possible. Together, we’ll determine the best course of treatment to control the reaction so your child can feel better soon and not develop scarring. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.

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By Mason Gomberg, MD, a pediatrician with Westchester Health Pediatrics

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About the Author: ML Ball