Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac: The Scourges of Spring

Few rashes are more irritating — and downright painful — than those caused by exposure to urushiol, the sap oil contained in poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac plants.

With peak poison ivy season fast approaching, we asked Sam Gross, MD, an Emergency Department physician at Winchester Hospital, to tell us more about this crusty condition.

“Urushiol causes localized irritation that can be transmitted while the oils are present on the skin from one area to another. Commonly called poison ivy, exposure typically results in a rash a few hours after exposure up to several days.” Dr. Gross explained.

“The rash is often blistering, uncomfortable and extremely itchy.”

Dr. Gross shared important information about poison ivy.

Leaves of Three Leave It Be

Familiarize yourself with the appearance of poison ivy, oak and sumac and avoid it. “A lot of times people will be doing yard work or landscaping and are not aware of what they are getting in contact with,” Dr. Gross said. “Pay attention to what you wear while working in the yard or hiking. Protect your skin from contact. Wear covered shoes, long pants, long sleeves and gloves when in the garden.”

Prevent the Spread

If you think you might have been exposed to poison ivy, wash with soap and water as soon as you can. Try not to touch other areas if you have the oil on your arms or forearms, and wash it off as quickly as you can, ideally within 15 minutes of contact. Undress and wash your clothing and gear as soon as you can. Be sure to wash any pet that was with you.

“Taking these steps can help prevent spreading the oil to someone else. If you are already developing the symptoms, and have washed up well, presumably the oils are no longer present on your skin so it’s not communicable and cannot be transmitted from person to person in that way,” Dr. Gross said.

Treating Poison Ivy/When to See a Health Care Provider

“Mild cases of poison ivy can be managed with over-the-counter treatments such as calamine or oatmeal baths,” Dr. Gross said. “The rash should clear up in a couple of weeks. Contact your health care provider if your rash is severe, spreads beyond the exposed parts of your body or affects your face. Call 911 immediately if you have trouble breathing or swallowing or have significant swelling. There are some things health care providers can do to help people feel better, including prescribing steroids,” Dr. Gross said.

Closing Thoughts

Poison ivy is generally a seasonal disease. “With some of the warmer weather we have been experiencing worldwide, we might see some earlier in the spring and later in the fall. It does seem that some people are more prone to it. Most of the people who have had it have had it before,” Dr. Gross said.

For more information on poison ivy, oak, and sumac, speak with your health care provider.

*The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Please consult a physician regarding your specific medical condition, diagnosis and/or treatment.

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