“Leaves of Three, Let them Be!” – Poison Ivy

It’s a sure sign of summer when we start seeing “complains of poison ivy” on our schedules. Here is a run-down of some poison ivy facts and clarification on some common misconceptions.

  1. Poison ivy does not spread by itself. I hear this a lot. This is pretty much an illusion. Where the heaviest concentration of oil from the plant touches first, is usually where the rash starts showing up initially. The rash associated with the lesser concentrations of oil that hits the skin can blossom up to 3 weeks after the contact happened. So, if you can envision walking past a poison ivy plant, and it hits you on the top of your hand and then drags along your forearm, you will see the rash as a result from that exposure show up on your hand first, and then as the days go past, show up in a line going up your arm. While this certainly gives the impression of spreading … it’s not. It’s just progressively showing up.
  2. You cannot spread poison ivy by touching the rash. You can only get poison ivy when you TOUCH the actual plant/oil. Once you have showered and changed your clothes, no one can touch your skin and get poison ivy from you. So make sure that clothes are immediately washed after exposure to poison ivy – this includes coats and shoes too. If the oil stays there, then someone can touch it and get the poison ivy rash from it.
  3. “Is it poison ivy or poison oak, or maybe poison sumac?” There is not a distinct rash that is associated with these particular plants. In fact, we don’t diagnose “poison ivy” on the medical chart. The official diagnosis is “contact dermatitis.” And we treat all of them the same.
  4. Treatment. Steroids, steroids, steroids. Treatment for poison ivy involves reducing the inflammation that the oil caused on the skin. Steroids are great for this. So in mild cases, you can use over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream (Cortaid, Cortisone), but sometimes if the itch is really bad, you will need to come in and see us so we can prescribe a stronger steroid cream, or, if the rash is in a large general area, a systemic, oral steroid is necessary. And like I mentioned in #1, it can continue to show up (and itch and drive you nuts) for up to 3 weeks after the initial exposure. You can also use Benadryl at night if the itching is keeping you up, but this is more for the sedating effect, than the anti-histamine affect.
  5. Yes, you CAN get it from the dog. If the dog is traipsing around the woods and walks by a poison ivy plant, the oil can sit on their fur for days.
  6. Yes, you CAN get it thru clothing. Just like if you put a drop of oil on your shirt, it would seep thru and touch your skin, so can the oil of the plant. Heavy duty vinyl gloves are the only thing that will prevent seepage of the oil to the skin.
  7. Can you prevent it? Only by not touching the plant!! Although the severity of the rash may be diminished if you wash immediately after exposure. Studies show that 50% of the oil can be washed away 10 minutes after exposure. But this drops to 10% after 30 minutes and 0% after one hour.

Enjoy the rest of your summer and we hope it’s a poison ivy free one!!

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