With summer picnicking, fishing and other outdoor activities, there is a good chance of coming in contact with poison ivy. Everyone knows it has three leaves, but few people can readily identify the plant. In fact, most people who get the rash had not seen the plant. Yet with only a few exceptions, a person must come in contact with the plant to develop the rash.

The rash, consisting of blisters and red, itchy skin, often occurs in streaks because of grazing against the plant. The damage is caused by a resin in the plant’s sap which binds with the skin and causes an allergic reaction. It only takes a couple minutes for the binding to occur. After that it does not spread. The rash shows up about two days later and may last for 1-3 weeks.

The fluid in the blisters does not cause the rash to spread. The rash may appear to be spreading because it will break out later on thicker skin or on areas that got a lighter dose of the resin. Sometimes, there is a second exposure that makes it appear to be spreading. Also, recurrent exposures can come from tools or clothes that have been contaminated with the resin or from the fur of pets.

If you know you have come in contact with the plant, it may help to wash with soap immediately, but once the rash appears, all you can do is treat the symptoms. Potent steroid creams can decrease the redness and discomfort and help resolve the eruption more quickly.

It is also helpful to use calamine lotion with menthol and phenol, antihistamines for itching, and soaking in water or Burow’s solution to soothe the skin. In more severe cases, cortisones can be taken by mouth or by shots to decrease the allergic reaction to the poison ivy.

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