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Exposure to poison ivy can result in a severe rash and itching, which are symptoms of contact dermatitis. The rash will usually subside without treatment, but home remedies, such as cold compresses or calamine, can help manage the symptoms.

Poison ivy rash occurs due to physical contact with urushiol, an oil within the poison ivy plant. Although some people are not sensitive to this oil and never develop symptoms, most individuals experience a rash upon touching poison ivy.

Various home and over-the-counter (OTC) remedies can help manage the symptoms of a poison ivy rash. This article explores the strategies that may offer relief from poison ivy rash and discusses when to seek help from a doctor.

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Recognizing and avoiding poison ivy across all four seasons can help reduce the risk of poison ivy dermatitis.

Here are some tips to help identify the plant.

  • each leaf has three glossy leaflets
  • leaf edges may be smooth or notched
  • it grows either as a vine or a small shrub
  • it grows throughout the United States except for Alaska, Hawaii, and parts of the West Coast

The leaves change also color with the seasons:

  • Spring: reddish
  • Summer: green
  • Fall: orange, red, or yellow

Poison ivy may also have whitish-yellow berries or greenish-white flowers.

A poison ivy rash will usually go away without medical treatment, but it can cause severe discomfort until then.

The following poison ivy remedies may provide relief from symptoms.

1. Rubbing alcohol

Rubbing alcohol can remove the urushiol oil from the skin and other surfaces. It is a good idea to carry alcohol wipes when hiking or camping for prompt application to the affected area after poison ivy exposure.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises that urushiol can remain on the surface of most items that come into contact with poison ivy, sometimes for years, unless a person treats it with rubbing alcohol or water.

Items, such as boots, gloves, garden tools, clothes, and even animals and pets, can pick up urushiol and cause an allergic skin reaction in certain individuals.

2. Shower or bathe

As soon as possible after exposure, a person should:

  • wash the skin and under the fingernails with plain soap and lukewarm water to remove plant oils
  • wash any other items that have come into contact with the plant, such as clothing, garden tools, and pets
  • wear rubber gloves while washing these items

Taking brief, cool showers while the rash lasts may also provide ongoing relief.

3. Cold compress

Cool, wet compresses can help reduce itching and inflammation.

To make a compress:

  1. Run a clean washcloth under cold water.
  2. Wring off the excess water.
  3. Apply this to the skin.
  4. Repeat the above steps as needed.

Some people find that soaking the cloth in an astringent liquid, such as aluminum acetate, reduces further swelling and itching.

Soaking the rash in cool water may also help.

4. Resist scratching the skin

Scratching the skin can cause blisters to burst and infection to develop, for example, if bacteria are present under the nails.

Unscrubbed fingernails may also contain traces of urushiol, which can pass onto the skin through scratching. This can lead to further itching and a worsening of the rash.

5. Topical lotions and creams

Hydrocortisone creams that can help reduce itching and swelling are available as OTC products.

Products containing the following can also treat oozing and weeping:

  • zinc acetate
  • zinc carbonate
  • zinc oxide
  • calamine

People should always apply these products according to the instructions on the label.

6. Oral antihistamines

Oral antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), may help reduce inflammation, itching, and rash. A pharmacist can advise on suitable options, as some types can cause drowsiness.

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) advises people not to apply topical antihistamine cream to the rash, as it may worsen the itching.

7. Oatmeal bath

Older research shows that oatmeal has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that benefit a variety of inflammatory skin conditions.

Adding oatmeal to a lukewarm bath may help relieve the symptoms of a poison ivy rash. Additionally, applying colloidal oatmeal to the rash may also help.

8. Bentonite clay

Bentonite clay is a natural clay that people use in a variety of beauty and personal care products. Some individuals report relief from poison ivy rash after applying a paste of bentonite clay and water to the affected area.

Research suggests that using a modified version of bentonite clay (quaternium-18 bentonite) may help prevent or manage contact dermatitis due to poison ivy and poison oak.

9. Baking soda

Also known as sodium bicarbonate, baking soda is a salt that people mainly use in baking. However, it is also a natural cleaning agent and home remedy for various ailments.

The AAD recommends adding a cup of baking soda to running water when drawing a bath.

10. Prescription steroids

Steroid drugs, such as prednisone, can help ease severe itching and inflammation. These are different from OTC hydrocortisone cream because they need a doctor’s prescription.

These steroid medications come in a variety of forms, including:

  • creams
  • gels
  • ointments
  • tablets
  • injections

Antibiotics may sometimes be necessary if a person contracts an infection due to scratching the skin or picking at blisters.

Most cases of poison ivy dermatitis clear up without medical intervention. However, a person should speak with a doctor if the following occur:

  • the rash becomes widespread, covering 25% or more of the body
  • symptoms are severe
  • there is tenderness, pus, or soft yellow scabs
  • the itching gets worse and affects a person’s sleep
  • the rash involves the eyes, mouth, or genitals
  • they experience breathing difficulties
  • symptoms do not improve after 7–10 days
  • they develop a fever of above 100°F (37.7°C)

Anyone with breathing problems should seek immediate emergency medical help.

Recognizing and avoiding poison ivy is the best way to prevent exposure and a rash.

If it is not possible to avoid the plant, the following tips can help:

  • Wear protective clothing: Cover up in areas where poison ivy is likely to grow. Use rubber or thick gardening gloves when gardening or removing poison ivy, as the oil may penetrate through thinner gloves.
  • Wear barrier substances: For example, applying products that contain bentoquatam before exposure may help reduce symptoms in case of contact. A person needs to wash off these substances as soon as possible if exposure occurs.
  • Wash anything that comes into contact with the plant: Thoroughly wipe anything that has been in contact with poison ivy with rubbing alcohol or wash with soap and water.
  • Remove poison ivy from the garden: Professional removal may be the best option — even contact with the roots, the dead plant, or smoke from a burning plant may cause a reaction. Never burn poison ivy, as breathing in the resulting smoke can cause dangerous allergic reactions.
  • Prepare a poison ivy kit: Keeping several poison ivy treatments on hand, such as rubbing alcohol, water bottles, and soap, can allow for a prompt treatment to ease exposure, which can reduce symptom severity.

A poison ivy rash can develop if a person’s skin comes into contact with urushiol, an oil present in all parts of the poison ivy plant. It can lead to severe itching.

The rash can cause severe discomfort, but home remedies can often help soothe it. They include wiping with rubbing alcohol, washing in lukewarm water, and applying cold compresses. If these do not ease the pain, a pharmacist may recommend OTC medication. If the symptoms persist or are severe, a person may need to speak with a doctor.

The home remedies listed in this article are available for purchase online.