Expert Tips to Ease Itch from Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac

As summer approaches and we start to spend more time outside, we’re thinking about protecting our skin from the elements. Along with sunburn and insect bites, skin rash from poison ivy and the like is one of the perils of the great outdoors. But the threat of itchy skin shouldn’t keep you inside this summer—these expert tips can help you cope with the irritation.

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD, aad.org) recently released these guidelines for treating skin rash and itch caused by exposure to poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. These plants contain oils that, when touched, can cause a skin rash that may itch as well as blister. Once on your skin, you can pass the oil to other parts of your body and to other people, causing more irritation.

These rashes, however, don’t have to ruin your summer outings—there are ways you can control itch and keep them from getting worse.

According to a recent news release from the AAD, your first step is to determine whether the rash is in fact caused by a poisonous plant and not related to a more severe allergic response. If you’re having symptoms of a more widespread reaction than a localized skin rash (such as trouble breathing or swallowing or you have swelling or many rashes or blisters), seek immediate emergency care. If, however, your only reaction is a rash affecting a small area of skin, you may be able to treat it at home. The AAD offers these tips from board-certified dermatologist Seemal R. Desai, MD, FAAD:

  • After touching poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac, immediately rinse your skin with lukewarm soapy water. You may be able to rinse off some of the oil and keep it from spreading to other areas of the body and causing additional rashes.
  • Wash all clothing you were wearing when you came into contact with the poisonous plant, as well as anything you may have touched after exposure (including pets, household surfaces, gardening tools). You’ll want to remove the plant oils to prevent another rash.
  • To prevent infection, don’t scratch the rash. And leave blisters alone to heal on their own.
  • To ease the itch, take short, lukewarm baths in a colloidal oatmeal preparation, which you can buy at your local drugstore. You can also draw a bath and add one cup of baking soda to the running water. Short, cool showers may also help.
  • Apply calamine lotion to skin that itches. If you have a mild case, a hydrocortisone cream or lotion may also help.
  • Apply cool compresses to the itchy skin by wetting a clean washcloth with cold water and wringing it out and placing on the irritated spot.
  • Antihistamine pills may help reduce itching. But don’t apply a topical antihistamine to your skin—it can worsen the rash and the itch.

A rash from poison ivy, oak, or sumac will likely last one to three weeks and should start improving after seven to 10 days. If your rash doesn’t improve within 10 days or you think it may be infected, Dr. Desai recommends seeing a dermatologist.

Prevention First

Of course in the best case, we avoid exposure to poisonous plants and prevent a rash in the first place. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (fda.gov) provides tips to help you protect yourself:

  • Learn what poison ivy, oak, and sumac plants look like so you can avoid them. The AAD provides photos and descriptions on their page, “Poison ivy: Tips for treating and preventing” (http://www.aad.org/dermatology-a-to-z/diseases-and-treatments/m—p/poison-ivy/tips).
  • Wash your garden tools and gloves regularly. If you think you may be working around poisonous plants, wear long sleeves, long pants tucked into boots, and impermeable gloves.
  • Wash your pet if it may have brushed up against poison ivy, oak, or sumac. Use pet shampoo and water while wearing rubber gloves, such as dishwashing gloves. Most pets are not sensitive to these plants, but the oil can stick to their fur and cause a reaction in someone who pets them.
  • Wash your skin in soap and cool water as soon as possible if you come in contact with a poisonous plant. The sooner you cleanse the skin, the greater the chance that you can remove the plant oil and help prevent further spread.