Help! I’m Covered In Poison Ivy!

You are out hiking on a warm summer day. You see a little clearing that’s just off the trail. “What’s the harm in going off trail,” you think. You frolic through the underbrush, laughing and yelping with exhilaration, collapsing into a giggling heap on a carpet of green leaves growing in groups of three.

The next day you’re covered in angry, blistering rashes on your arms, legs, and everywhere else that touched the foliage. Congratulations! You found poison ivy.

What is poison ivy?

Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are a group of plants that all produce a similar chemical irritant called urushiol. It is an oily substance found on the leaves of these plants, and it causes a rash when exposed to the skin.

In mild cases, it may only cause some redness and irritation, though in severe cases it can cause a blistering, painful rash. The severity of the reaction depends partly on how much the skin was exposed, for how long, and the sensitivity of the individual. While some individuals have little sensitivity to urushiol, others are highly sensitive and may even develop anaphylaxis when exposed.

How do I identify poison ivy?

The phrase “leaves of three, let them be” is often used to teach children to avoid exposure. Poison ivy is found along the forest floor and underbrush, but it can also grow on other plants, or as small standalone weeds. The edges of the leaves can be smooth or notched, but most often grow in a rough oval shape.

Unfortunately, the reaction caused by urushiol isn’t often immediate. It can take from 24-72 hours after exposure for noticeable symptoms to emerge. Because of this, touching a plant and waiting for a reaction isn’t a reliable test to determine whether or not you’re handling poison ivy. If you are unsure of exposure, washing immediately with soap and water can help prevent or lessen a reaction.

As urushiol remains reactive for up to five years, handling poison ivy and then handling other objects, such as clothing, doorknobs, or other household objects, can spread the substance and cause reactions for other individuals who handle these objects. Additionally, handling dead poison ivy, such as after removal, can still result in reactions. The urushiol can be just as potent on a dead poison ivy plant as it can on a live one.

What do I do if I get a rash?

If you notice you’ve developed a rash after spending time outdoors, the first thing you should do is remove any clothes or objects you were wearing during the time of exposure, as these items may still be contaminated and spreading urushiol across your skin. These items should be washed thoroughly with soap and water.

Next, begin to wash the inflamed area gently, but thoroughly with soap and water. Pine tar soap, which is available in both bar and liquid form, is an ideal choice for poison ivy. Pine tar soap both removes the oil itself from the skin, while simultaneously soothing the inflammation and relieving pain. Because of its soothing properties, pine tar soap has been a preferred way to wash outdoors for generations.

After washing the area, topical products like corticosteroids or calamine lotion can be used to relieve itching and pain. The rash may last between one week and one month. Continuing to use topical products and washing with pine tar soap can relieve symptoms throughout its duration.

How does pine tar soap help relieve the skin?

Pine tar has been used to treat skin conditions for centuries and its benefits are multifaceted. Pine tar reduces inflammation, seemingly by reducing the cellular activity of the skin and allowing it to return to normal. Additionally, the antibacterial and antifungal properties of pine tar can help keep skin stay free from infection throughout the healing process.

Because the rash caused by poison ivy is essentially just an inflammatory reaction, pine tar helps return the skin to its normal state, which reduces the itching and pain associated with it. In cases where the allergic reaction was severe enough to cause skin breakdown, pine tar soap prevents infection by cleaning the wound and layering antimicrobial protection on top of it. This protective property helps the skin heal more quickly and with fewer complications.

How do I avoid poison ivy?

The best way to avoid the discomfort of poison ivy is to prevent exposure. Staying on well-manicured trails is a simple way to avoid exposure. Additionally, wearing long pants and sleeves can offer some measure of protection while you move through brush. While clothing exposed to poison ivy can still cause rashes, it can limit exposure and lessen the extent and severity of the rash.

Lastly, learning to identify poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac can help you avoid the plant altogether, whether you’re on the trail or off. Research the types of toxic plants that grow in your area and where they grow, such as on or around other common trees, in underbrush, or in particular environments. This kind of preparation before exploring a new landscape is a great way to learn more about our wild areas, plants, and animals. A field guide specific to the area is an invaluable tool in identifying plants and animals that you encounter on the trail.

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