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What to do if you get a poison ivy rash

Whether you’re hiking, camping, gardening or playing outside with your dog, it can be easy to come into contact with poison ivy. Poison ivy is a plant with three leaves that contains urushiol, an oily substance that can trigger an allergic reaction in humans and animals.

When your skin is exposed to poison ivy (or poison oak or sumac), you can develop an itchy, painful or even blistered rash. Bailee Blackburn, M.D., a Piedmont primary care physician, shares what symptoms to watch for and what to do if you think you may have come in contact with the poisonous plant.

Signs you may have a poison ivy rash

“The classic poison ivy rash comes on within hours after exposure with very itchy bumps or even blisters, often in a streak-like pattern from the plant (or your hand or glove) rubbing the plant oil onto your skin,” says Dr. Blackburn.

While this type of rash can be related to other conditions, such as contact dermatitis, if you’ve been outside or exposed to poison ivy, there’s a good chance it’s the culprit.

Even if you don’t physically touch a poison ivy plant, you can still come into contact with urushiol through your gardening gloves and tools, golf clubs, shoes, clothes or pet’s fur.

What to do first if you’re exposed to poison ivy

“If you’ve come into contact with poison ivy, take off any contaminated clothing and wash the area with soap and very warm or hot water as soon as possible,” says Dr. Blackburn. “But even washing as late as two hours after exposure can still help lessen the likelihood of developing the rash.”

You should also wash contaminated clothing, shoes, hats and gloves with laundry detergent and hot water. Wipe down garden tools or golf clubs with rubbing alcohol or wash them with soap and hot water. Handle these items with gloves to prevent exposure.

How to treat symptoms of a poison ivy rash

For a mild rash, you can start with:

  • Oatmeal baths

  • Cool, wet compresses followed by topical over-the-counter calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream

This can calm inflammation and itching.

When to seek medical care for a poison ivy rash

You should contact your health care provider if:

  • You have a fever over 100 degrees.

  • The itching gets worse or prevents you from sleeping.

  • You have pus or yellow scabs on the rash.

  • The rash spreads to your genitals, eyes or mouth.

  • The rash is severe or covers more than 25% of your skin.

  • You have trouble breathing.

“I would seek medical care if the rash is widespread or worsening despite at-home treatments,” she says. “Many times, patients end up needing a prescription-strength steroid to help alleviate the symptoms. Your provider can help make the decision if a prescription cream, pill or shot is the best option for treatment.”

How to prevent poison ivy exposure

As always, prevention is key, says Dr. Blackburn. Here’s how to reduce your risk of exposure:

  • Familiarize yourself with what poison ivy, oak and sumac look like so you know what to avoid.

  • Wear clothing that covers your arms and legs if you’re working outside.

  • Avoid touching your face and exposed skin with dirty gloves.

  • Wash all exposed skin with soap and warm water after doing yard work.

  • Bathe your pet if they might have come into contact with poison ivy.

  • Wash your gardening gloves and tools regularly.

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