About Poison Ivy: Treatment and Prevention

Most cases of the rash can be self-treated using calamine lotion or over-the-counter ointments and creams containing zinc oxide. Avoid using antihistamine and anesthetic (e.g., benzocaine) creams - they may be effective, but they may also cause an allergic reaction. Applying cold compresses for 15 to 30 minutes at a time, several times a day, will help with the itching and blistering. A baking soda paste (3 teaspoons of baking soda and 1 teaspoon of water) can be applied to the rash. Colloidal oatmeal baths (e.g., Aveeno) can also provide relief. Burow's solution can be applied as a damp compress for period of less than 20 minutes. If the previous measures do not improve the rash, then hydrocortisone cream or ointment can be applied. A cortisone shot may relieve the itching, particularly within 24 hours of exposure. Corticosteroids or antihistamines taken by mouth may also relieve the symptoms, but both drugs can have unwanted side effects.

Anyone with complications from a severe case, or with a rash that is not improving with self-treatment, needs to see a doctor. If the case is so severe that a more general illness (fever, nausea, dehydration) develops, a doctor may recommend injections of a corticosteroid drug.

The best way to deal with poison ivy and its relatives is to learn to recognize the plants, and then stay out of reach. If you suspect contact with a poison ivy plant, wash immediately and thoroughly with soap and water. Carefully clean the skin, clothes, shoes, and tools and anything that might have picked up the plant's toxic resin. If you are going into poison ivy country, you can try one of the "barrier" lotions available from outdoor suppliers. These coat the skin in order to stop the urushiol poison from causing a reaction. And, finally, the old folk tale about eating poison ivy leaves to get immunity is just that, a myth. Never eat the leaves or berries of wild plants; many of them can cause dangerous reactions in humans.

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