Kim Sherman, R.Ph. - Green Location
Q: What is the best way to treat poison ivy?
A: Poison ivy produces an itchy red rash which usually forms in lines or streaks but can also have large raised hives or fluid filled blisters. The rash is an allergic reaction caused by contact with the urushiol oil found on the plants. It can occur from contact with the plant, or when you touch other objects that have come in contact with the oil such as pet fur, gardening gloves or tools, or clothing.
The rash usually appears within 8 to 48 hours of contact with the oil.The rash is not contagious, even if you touch the fluid from a blister. It may seem like the rash is spreading, but it is either still emerging from a previous contact or a new contact with something that still contains the urushiol oils.
To treat poison ivy at home, the best thing to do is to prevent it. Learn to identify and avoid the plants (for assistance on identifying the plant check out the Centers for Disease control website at cdc.gov). Wear long sleeves and pants and disposable gloves. If you know you will be in contact with the plants there are creams such as Ivy Block that provide some protection to your skin. When you come in from outside, wash exposed areas well with soap and plenty of water. Most cases of poison ivy can be avoided if the area is washed within 15 minutes of contact and there is evidence that you may have up to 4 hours to remove the oil to prevent the rash. Be sure to wash exposed contaminated clothing and tools as well. There are cleansers such as Ivy-Dry Scrub that break down the urushiol oil and are good for washing up after contact with the plants. Zanfel® is a cream that works well to minimize the reaction. You can use it after the rash forms and it breaks the bond between your skin and the oil. It also works to help with itching and pain within 30 seconds. Another choice is Burt's Bees Poison Ivy Soap®. It contains jewelweed and pine tar, two plants that help relieve symptoms of a poison ivy rash.
There are several other over-the-counter products that can help treat the itching and redness. Hydrocortisone 1% cream is a good choice, but keep in mind hydrocortisone should not be used over large areas of the body or near the eyes or mouth. Calamine lotion can be a good choice for children and may help to dry out blisters. Homeopathic treatments like Poison Ivy Remedy also work well to relieve itching and redness. Oral antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) will help, but they do cause drowsiness. This is a good choice to prevent nighttime itching. Try not to scratch the rash as this can lead to infection.
Most poison ivy rashes can be treated at home, but if you develop swelling of the face, mouth, or eyelids, or if the rash is widespread and oozes large amounts of fluid you should seek medical attention. Severe cases of poison ivy are usually treated with corticosteroids prescribed by a doctor.