Poison Ivy and Poison Oak are plants that cause skin irritations through skin contact with these plants. As a result, a skin rash will develop called allergic contact dermatitis. These red and uncomfortably itchy rashes will often appear in lines or streaks and is marked by fluid-filled bumps (blisters) or large raised areas (hives). It is the most common skin problem caused by contact with Poison Ivy and Oak.
Poison oak has leaves that look like oak leaves, usually with three leaflets but sometimes up to seven leaflets per leaf group. It grows as a vine or a shrub. Poison oak is more common in the western United States, but it is also found in the eastern United States and, rarely, in the Midwest.
Poison ivy usually has three broad, spoon-shaped leaves or leaflets but it can have more. It may grow as a climbing or low, spreading vine that sprawls through grass (more common in the eastern United States) or as a shrub (more common in the northern United States, Canada, and the Great Lakes region).
Poison ivy and oak contain an irritating, oily sap called urushiol. Urushiol triggers an allergic reaction when it comes into contact with skin, resulting in an itchy rash, which can appear within hours of exposure or up to several days later. A person can be exposed to urushiol directly or by touching objects — such as gardening tools, camping equipment, and even a pet’s fur — that have come into contact with the sap of one of the poison plants.
After coming into contact with these plants, the urushiol penetrates the skin within minutes causing rashes that resemble insect bites within 12 to 24 hours. Symptoms of poison ivy and oak tend to manifest between a few hours to a couple of days after exposure. The blisters that develop from poison ivy and oak usually crust within five days, with healing usually complete within 10 days. In some extreme cases symptoms include stomach cramps, nausea and swelling of the body.
The best way to cure poison ivy and oak dermatitis is to prevent them from occurring in the first place. You can avoid the misery of poison ivy dermatitis is to be on the look-out for it, and stay away. In the backyard, the weed can be destroyed by herbicides, but this is not a working solution for forest preserves or natural sites. It is best to wear long pants and long sleeves, and, if practical, gloves and boots.
If you highly suspect that you may have come in contact with either plant, wash all exposed areas with cold, running water as soon as you can reach a stream, lake, or garden hose. If you can do this within five minutes, the water will neutralize, or deactivate the urushiol in the plant’s sap and keep it from spreading to other parts of the body. Soap is not necessary, and may even spread the oil.
If you have a severe reaction to urushiol, wash the affected areas with Tecnu as soon as you get home. Also when you return home, you should wash all clothing outside with a garden hose before bringing it into the house, where resin could be transferred to rugs or to furniture. Handle the clothing as little as possible until it is soaked.
Cool showers will help alleviate the itching as will simple, over-the-counter preparations, like calamine lotion or Burrow’s solution, will relieve mild rashes. Soaking in a tepid bath with an oatmeal or baking soda solution is often recommended to dry oozing blisters and offer some comfort.
A hot bath or a shower often produces relief for poison ivy and oak dermatitis. The heat releases histamine; a substance in the skin that causes intense itching. Therefore, a hot shower will cause intense itching as the histamine is being released. The heat should be gradually increased to the maximum tolerable and continued until the itching subsides. This process will deplete the cells of histamine, and the patient will obtain up to 8 hours of relief from itching.
In severe cases, prescribed medication may be necessary for treating poison ivy and oak dermatitis. Corticosteroids can quickly halt an allergic reaction at the onset of the outbreak or later. A doctor can prescribe steroid cream stronger than 0.5 percent hydrocortisone cream to be applied four to six times a day. An antihistamine or aspirin can also be used to systematically treat the itching caused by poison oak and ivy.