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Beating the Itch
Poison ivy – and its evil cousins poison oak and poison sumac – can appear just about anywhere. If you touch these plants, or if you touch something that has touched them, you can end up with a nasty rash that can cause weepy blisters and last for as long as a couple of weeks.
The best approach is to avoid exposure in the first place. Poison ivy can be either a vine or a shrub. It is characterized by sets of three leaves that are green in summer and can be yellow in spring and fall. Poison oak also has sets of three leaves that resemble small oak leaves; it usually grows as a shrub. Poison sumac has multiple sets of paired leaflets and another leaflet at the end of the thin branch.
All these plants have an oily substance called urushiol that causes the allergic reaction on your skin. Obviously, it is best to avoid the plants altogether. But if you live where these plants are common, you should make sure to cover your skin when you are outside. You also can put on a skin product that blocks the oil, although you still should cover up.
If your efforts fail, though, and you are exposed to the plants, wash the affected skin thoroughly with warm water and soap. If you get to it quickly enough – usually within about 10 to 30 minutes of exposure -- you might be able to wash off all or most of the oil. Take special care to wash under your fingernails, where the oil can hide.
Also wash the clothes you were wearing, and wash anything that might have come into contact with the plants. This includes pets, which can carry the oil on their fur and transfer it to you.
If a rash develops, try these remedies:
Finally, don’t try to get rid of poison ivy or similar plants by burning. The fire releases the oil into the air, and you can get a rash if it lands on you.
- Apply cool compresses to the affected skin.
- Take cool baths, adding colloidal oatmeal or baking soda. You also can try cool showers.
- Apply calamine lotion or an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream to the rash.
- Take an oral antihistamine.
- Call your doctor if the rash is near your eyes or covers a large part of your body.