Itching to go outside? Beware: poison ivy season is upon us

Two hikers walk along a trail with walking sticks.

With the warmer weather, many people are spending more time outdoors. This may mean an increased chance of coming in contact with poison ivy—along with its cousins, poison oak and poison sumac.

Prepare for poison ivy season

The rash from each of these plants is caused by an allergic reaction to an oily resin in the plant called urushiol.1 Reactions to this resin range from nonexistent to severe, depending on the individual and the extent of exposure.2 For most people, the rash is mild and itches for a couple of weeks before fading away.

Here are some tips to help prepare you for poison ivy season.

  • Leaves of three, let them be. The age-old advice to stay away from three-leaf plants in the woods is based in science, as poison ivy always has three leaves, usually with red stems. Poison oak and poison sumac have different leaf arrangements.3
  • Wash up. If you’re not sure what you touched when you stepped into a mass of green leaves, wash your hands and any other affected area right away just to be safe. Wash your clothes, shoes and tools too—and even your pet! The oily residue sticks to everything and can still cause problems after you’ve returned home.4
  • Use over-the-counter remedies for minor irritation. If the rash is mild, readily available treatments such as calamine lotion, corticosteroid skin cream, Benadryl and similar products can usually offer some relief, according to the Mayo Clinic.5
  • More severe reactions may require medical attention. If your rash looks more serious, with large, fluid-filled blisters, swelling, fever or signs of infection, or you’re having difficulty breathing, you should see a doctor.6
  • Try barrier ointments. If you think you might encounter poison ivy, there are topical products on the market designed to prevent the rash by creating a barrier against urushiol.7

One more thing: A vining plant called Virginia creeper is often confused with poison ivy, but it’s unlikely to cause you any harm.8

Sources

  1. “Poison Ivy Rash: Symptoms & Causes,” Mayo Clinic, last accessed March 26, 2021, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/poison-ivy/symptoms-causes/syc-20376485, opens new window.
  2. “Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac,” U.S. National Library of Medicine, last accessed March 26,2021, https://medlineplus.gov/poisonivyoakandsumac.html, opens new window.
  3. “Identify the Plant,” Poison Ivy, last accessed March 26, 2021, https://www.poison-ivy.org/identify-poison-ivy-poison-oak, opens new window.
  4. “Poison Ivy Rash: Diagnosis & Treatment,” Mayo Clinic, last accessed March 26, 2021, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/poison-ivy/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20376490, opens new window.
  5. “Poison Ivy Rash: Diagnosis & Treatment.”
  6. “Poison Ivy Rash: Diagnosis & Treatment.”
  7. “Poison Ivy Rash: Diagnosis & Treatment.”
  8. Leah Hughes, “Virginia Creeper,” Our State: Celebrating North Carolina, last accessed March 26, 2021, https://www.ourstate.com/virginia-creeper/, opens new window.