How To Get Rid Of Poison Ivy As Fast As Possible: 7 Tips From Someone Who's Been There
My summer wouldn't be complete without a few awkward tan lines, at least a dozen bug bites, and me frantically trying to figure out how to get rid of poison ivy, which I inevitably come into contact with every year. Without fail, I find myself covered in the itchy, red rash caused by contact with the plant, and this year, it just so happened to break out on my rear end. My entire derriere was red, itchy, and oozing. If you've ever been victim to poison ivy's wrath, then you know my pain all to well.
Poison ivy, or Toxicodendron radicans, is a poisonous plant commonly found throughout North America. As you probably already know, coming into contact with the plant causes allergic contact dermatitis, or more simply put, a skin rash. What you might not know is that it's thanks to urushiol, a liquid compound found in the sap of the plant, that people get a rash, and unfortunately, it's an oil that is easily spread and not so easily gotten rid of. It can get on your shoes, clothing, pets, tools, your frisbee — you name it. And the worst part? It can stay active anywhere from one to five years. I told you it was a pain.
Once you've come into contact with urushiol, it can penetrate the skin within five to 10 minutes, or as long as three weeks after exposure. The easiest way to avoid an allergic reaction is to wash your skin immediately after contact, but if you aren't lucky enough to notice, then chances are you'll end up with a rash within 24 hours. Symptoms of the rash include blotchy, itchy skin, and bubbling, oozing blisters, which can last anywhere from one to three weeks. Contrary to popular belief, the liquid from the blisters is not contagious, and does not spread poison ivy. The rash itself can appear over the course of a few days, so the areas that are affected later were not irritated by the oil from your own body, but from original contact with the poison ivy.
My butt and I have already had to deal with itchy skin, leaking blisters, and a whole lot of discomfort. So if you find yourself with itchy skin this summer thanks to poison ivy, here are some tips on the best way to handle it, as told by someone who has already been there.
1. Know what it looks like
The easiest way to avoid an itchy, irritating poison ivy rash is to stay away from the plant and its oils completely, but that's not always possible. What does poison ivy look like? Well, it can grow as a vine or a shrub, and its coloration varies from light green to dark green to bright red. While the plant usually appears in a group of three leaflets, its appearance can easily vary. The leaves themselves can have a few small teeth, or they can be smooth around the edges. It can grow in the forest, in parks, and by bodies of water. See what I mean? Sometimes, poison ivy isn't avoidable, but as a good rule of thumb, don't touch any plants you can't identify.
2. Wash everything immediately
Once you've come into contact with poison ivy and urushiol, you should wash up right away. Using lukewarm water and soap, make sure you wash your skin, your clothes, your shoes, your pets — everything and anything that might have been exposed. Urushiol can stay active for up to five years, meaning if you forget to wash your sneakers after traipsing through a poison ivy shrub, then you can give yourself the rash again and again until the oil is removed. After washing yourself and everything around you, make sure to rinse everything thoroughly.
3. Know what lotions and ointments to use
When you get around to dragging your itchy, oozing self to the pharmacy, be warned: you will be overwhelmed by all of the anti-itch lotions and ointments lining the shelves. How do you know which one to use? My personal regiment includes Tecnu cleanser, calamine lotion, and rash relief spray. Tecnu is a water-free cleanser that washes away any remaining urushiol, and it works better than anything I've ever tried. I use it on everything — my body, my clothes, and my pets — and it really does the trick.
After washing with Tecnu, I use cotton balls to cover my rash in calamine. Calamine lotion has long been prescribed for poison ivy rashes, because it not only alleviates the itch, but it also helps dry out the oozing blisters. If calamine lotion isn't cutting it, I turn to an anti-itch spray. While it doesn't treat the rash or blisters, it helps with the discomfort and the itch, and is great in hard-to-reach places (you know, like your butt). Avoid using antihistamine creams, as they do not effectively stop the itching, and they keep the irritated skin moist instead of drying it out, which may cause the rash to stay longer.
4. Take showers, not baths
While oatmeal baths feel soothing and help cut the itch caused by poison ivy, you should opt for showers over baths when treating your rash. Urushiol oil is hard to get rid of, and when you bathe, the oil may leave your skin but stay on the surface of the water, meaning you run the risk of soaking yourself in even more of it. Instead, opt for a shower, where water is running over your skin, rinsing away any residue. If you do choose to take a bath, make sure the water isn't too hot, as hot water opens your pores and can make it easier for the urushiol to penetrate your skin. Follow up your bath with a rinse in the shower after.
5. Don't underestimate fresh air
In my experience, the quickest way to get rid of poison ivy is to let it dry out. While lotions like calamine help speed up the process, don't overlook the power of letting it air out. It might seem logical to want to wrap your poison ivy-infected areas in a bandage (you know, since they're oozing and all), but resist the urge, and let some fresh air get to it. The air will not only help dry out your wounds faster, but it will keep your itch level to a minimum. Nothing itches more than poison ivy lathered in ointment and wrapped up under a bandage or tight clothes. Stick to loose-fitting clothing, and don't be afraid to let your rash out in the open. It might look gross, but don't be embarrassed. I walked around pants-less for four days (luckily I work from home) so the air could get at my rash, and I promise, it was worth it.
6. Do not scratch
I know you want to, and I know it feels so good, but whatever you do, do not scratch your poison ivy rash. Contrary to popular belief, scratching does not spread your rash (again, that liquid that oozes from the wounds does not contain any poison ivy oils), but it can damage your skin and cause an infection. After suffering through day after day of itchy skin, that is the last thing you need. Instead of scratching, try a cold compress or an anti-itch spray. It might not be as satisfying, but it's a safer, healthier option.
7. Know when it's time to see a doctor
If you have trouble breathing, or you ingest poison ivy in any way, call your doctor immediately. In most cases, poison ivy will clear up within a week or two on its own, but if your rash doesn't go away, make an appointment with your physician. Everyone's reaction to poison ivy is different, and in extreme cases, the allergy can be so severe that a prescription like prednisone is required to treat it.
From one victim of poison ivy to another, good luck! It's an itchy world out there, but we are in this together.