Poison ivy grows just about everywhere in the Midwest. People don’t have to live in the countryside to experience the sensation of a poison ivy outbreak, although contact is required. That can happen in the backyard, on hiking trips, the golf course, campouts or wherever.
As many as 85 percent of people have an allergic reaction to the oil in poison ivy. For those people, contact with the oil, called urushiol (pronounced you-ROO-shee-all), causes an itchy, blistering rash usually within 12 to 72 hours.
“Just how bad the symptoms are depends on how bad the person’s allergy is to the oil. It also depends on the quantity of exposure,” said Mercy Clinic dermatologist Jason Reinberg, MD. “A serious reaction requires a doctor’s attention.”
It’s time to see a doctor when exposure causes:
• Trouble breathing, swallowing or swelling that closes the eyelids.
• A rash or series of rashes and blisters that cover most of the body.
• A rash that develops anywhere on the face or genitals.
• Itching that doesn’t stop, even with treatment.
• Signs of an infection: fever, oozing blisters, pain, swelling and warmth around the rash.
“Your physician may prescribe a steroid ointment or pill to treat the allergy and, if necessary, an antibiotic to treat an infection,” said Dr. Reinberg. “Typical rashes usually last one to three weeks and can be treated with over-the-counter creams like calamine lotion or hydrocortisone and an antihistamine to relieve the itch. It’s very important to completely finish any prescribed steroid pills because stopping the pills too early can cause the rash to return.”
Although any poison ivy oil that remains on the skin is initially contagious, the actual rash and even the blister fluid, is not contagious. It always seems like it spreads, but that’s really a delayed reaction to the previous exposure. It can, however, be tracked in by things that have made contact.
While pets are impervious to poison ivy outbreaks, they can carry fresh urushiol oils on their fur. Gloves, tools, golf bags, laundry, etc., can also carry the oil and should be handled with care.
“If you come into contact with poison ivy, immediately rinse the area with lots of cool water. You can also use specialized poison plant wash or a degreasing dishwashing soap,” said Dr. Reinberg.
The best defense against poison ivy is to know how to spot it and keep a distance. “If you or your loved ones are burdened by repeated infections, or severe reactions, use precautions to safely remove it,” said Dr. Reinberg.
Removing poison ivy may require repeated attempts. Dress accordingly. Exposed skin is at risk. Wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, boots and gloves. Spray the weed as instructed with a triclopyr-based herbicide or other product made especially for poison ivy.
Most importantly, never burn poison ivy because burning the oil can cause severe respiratory problems.
Dr. Reinberg is a member of Mercy Clinic Dermatology Washington, 901 Patients First Drive in Washington. For more information, call 636-390-1595.