Poison ivy leaves.

How to treat poison ivy or oak

Don’t like the look of that rash?

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Nothing can spoil a couple of weeks of your summer faster than a case of poison ivy or oak. The vined plants seem to pop up in both wooded and residential areas. However, some of the home remedies you find on the internet can make things worse.

Ryan Riech, MD, internal medicine and pediatric physician with OSF HealthCare, recommends using caution with home remedies and avoiding the plants if possible.

Treating a reaction

Poison ivy rash on person's arm.Many home remedies aren’t proven to be effective, and some are even dangerous.

“The reaction is usually a bothersome and irritating rash,” Dr. Riech said. “However, there are some people who have more severe reactions. In general, there are not great, proven treatments for poison ivy and oak skin reactions (dermatitis). This is why avoidance of the plant and oil is so important.”

For mild rashes that are not on the face or private areas, Dr. Riech recommends over-the-counter topical steroids like hydrocortisone to treat the rash and help with the itching.

“Some other agents may help with comfort, such as calamine lotion,” Dr. Riech said. “Over-the-counter medications, such as diphenhydramine (brand names include Benadryl) are sometimes used. But for this type of allergic reaction, they are often ineffective and can cause other side effects.”

Generally, a physician should evaluate if the rash is:

  • On the face or genitals
  • Covers more than 20% of your body
  • Red and weeping fluid
  • Not responding to over-the-counter medications

“Severity is usually based on how bad the patient perceives the rash or itching to be,” Dr. Riech said. “It is important to be examined because the lesions can sometimes become infected.”

How to identify poison ivy

Poison ivy plant on tree.Avoid plants with leaf clusters of three. Typically, poison ivy has a stem with a larger leaf at the end, and two smaller leaves shooting off the sides. The leaves can be notched or smooth on the edges with pointed tips. The leaves are reddish in the spring, green in summer and yellow or orange in the fall.

Poison ivy also produces clusters of greenish-white berries throughout the spring and summer with green or yellow flowers.

“Remember the saying: ‘Leaves of three, let them be.’” Dr. Riech said. “While quite a few plants have three leaves, both poison ivy and oak can be identified by these three-leaf clusters. It’s safer to avoid all plants with three-leaf clusters.”

How to identify poison oak

Poison oak plant in forest.While you’ll commonly find poison oak with three-leaf clusters, some varieties display five or seven per cluster. But you can still recognize it by its distinctive leaves that have a lobed, wavy appearance similar to oak tree leaves.

Unlike poison ivy, poison oak leaves are rounded rather than pointed. They’re bright green in spring; yellow, green or pink in the summer; and finally transition from yellow to dark brown in the fall.

The solution – stay away

Avoidance of the oil through recognition of the plants is the best way to prevent getting this reaction.

  • Use a barrier cream. Bentoquatam is one option available over the counter.
  • Cover as much skin as possible with long sleeves and pants.
  • Carefully remove and thoroughly wash clothing after exposure.
  • Wash exposed skin with lukewarm, soapy water without aggressive scrubbing.
  • Wash and clean any objects and animals that were exposed.

“I cannot stress avoidance and caution enough,” Dr. Riech said.

Typically, these dermatitis rashes can be treated through convenient or urgent care options.

About Author: David Pruitt

David Pruitt is a writer for the Marketing & Communications division of OSF HealthCare. He has a bachelor’s of journalism from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and worked as a reporter before joining OSF HealthCare in 2014.

An avid golfer and fisherman, David was born and raised Alton, Illinois, which is where he currently resides with his son, James.

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