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Leaves of Three...Let it Be!

Are you familiar with this expression? Chances are you or someone you know has suffered with the itchy rash caused by coming in contact with poison ivy or poison oak. With warmer weather finally here to stay, the green things in our yards and parks are starting to grow…and with them, the poison ivy and poison oak are growing too.


Not everyone “gets” poison ivy. In fact, most people have no reaction the first time they are exposed to poison ivy; it can sometimes take multiple exposures before an allergic response develops. Children under the age of 7 are rarely sensitive to poison ivy. 15-30% of people never develop sensitivity to poison ivy.


Allergic reactions to poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac cause more cases of allergic contact dermatitis than all other causes combined. The rash that develops in response to exposure to all three of these culprits is the same because the cause is the same—the oil called “urushiol”. This oil is contained in the leaves, roots, and twigs of the plants. Urushiol can stick to virtually ANYTHING. It can dry and remain potent indefinitely.  Anything an affected person has come in contact with between the initial exposure and a shower is probably contaminated with the oil as well and should be washed down. This includes shoes, clothing, balls, toys, tools, sleeping bags, etc. Items should be rinsed off with a hard spray of cold water OR washed down with a mixture of rubbing alcohol and water (this breaks down the oil). The oil can also cling to the fur of pets that have brushed up against it while outside.



If an individual KNOWS he/she has come in contact with poison ivy, the FDA recommends an exposed individual should quickly (ideally, within 10 minutes):

            *cleanse the exposed area with rubbing alcohol

            *wash the exposed area with cool water only (NO soap or WARM water, as this

              spreads the urushiol all over the body and makes the rash worse)

            *next, shower (not a bath) with warm water and soap

            *finally, wearing gloves, wipe down all contaminated items with rubbing alcohol

               and water

For up to about 6 hours, washing with rubbing alcohol may help remove the oil, but many say that after about 30 minutes, the oil has soaked in and can’t be removed.


The poison ivy rash starts out as a slight itchy spot wherever the individual touched the oil (or spread the oil with hands—such as the face). The initial itchy areas will appear within 8-72 hours after exposure. The itchy area will progress to a bumpy rash made up of small blistery-looking lesions that often appear in lines, streaks or patches.  This itchy rash can last from 1 to 3 weeks.  The poison ivy rash can range from bothersome to a medical emergency. Anytime the poison ivy rash appears on the face, particularly near the eyes, a physician should be consulted.  Any serious case should be seen by a doctor. Any breathing difficulty (this can sometimes happen when poison ivy has been burned and the smoke has been inadvertently inhaled) should receive immediate emergency assistance. Treatment of a non-serious rash is simply to provide comfort and lessen the itching. This can be accomplished by the application of calamine or caladryl or by taking a very warm shower.  Any of these treatments provide comfort for only a few hours at a time.


In spite of its appearance, the poison ivy rash is NOT contagious. The rash may continue to spread on the affected individual in any places that the oil has been spread, but person-to-person spreading is impossible. The fluid contained in the rash-blisters is not contagious and does not cause the rash to spread.


The best way to prevent poison ivy is to avoid it altogether. The “official” poison ivy website, www.poison-ivy.org , contains a quiz to assist readers in identifying the poison ivy plant and vines. Poison ivy in yards can be very difficult to remove—pulling it out, cutting the vines and/or roots, or burning it simply spreads the evil effects of the plant. Weed-eating the vines can cause a particularly noxious exposure as the oil is literally sprayed all over the victim with every swipe of the weed-eater cord. Spraying with a broadleaf herbicide such as “Roundup” is effective, but also kills all of the neighboring, non-offending vegetation. However, the best protection is avoidance of the plant altogether—wear long-sleeves and gloves when gardening, and teach children how to identify the plant and stay away from it.


Here are some additional links which may be helpful and that were used as resources for this article:




For medical advice, try: The American Academy of Dermatology Poison Ivy Page