“Leaves of three – let it be.” Many have heard this rhyme. It refers to the infectious plants – poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac. This is the time of year that health care providers see many people with a rash due to exposure to these plants. We call this rash “poison ivy” but the specialists call it “toxicodendron dermatitis.” It is estimated that about 75 percent of the population will develop this rash if his or her skin is exposed. The rash is caused by an oil found in these plants called urushiol. There are three ways to come in contact with this oil.
- Direct contact: This means that you actually touch the plant, flower, leaves or root.
- Indirect contact: This means that you were exposed to something that was in contact with the oil, such as a pet’s fur, gardening tool or sports equipment.
- Airborne contact: This means that particles of urushiol became airborne after burning or cutting. These airborne particles can land on the skin.
If the oil touches your skin, it causes symptoms 12 to 72 hours after exposure. The symptoms and findings may include:
- Red and itchy skin
- Small and large blisters often in a straight line
- Crusting skin after the blisters break
The first time you are exposed to this oil you may not get the rash, but with subsequent exposures you become sensitive to the oil. The rash does not spread unless you have the oil on your skin. It may seem to spread because the rash may become more severe over time. Thankfully, there is no spread from one person to another. The rash can last up to three weeks or more. The Internet has many photos that show this type of rash.
Treatment varies depending on the severity of the condition. According to the American College of Dermatology, you should go to the emergency room or urgent care center if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Trouble breathing or swallowing.
- Rash covering most of your body.
- Many rashes or blisters.
- Swelling, especially if an eyelid swells shut.
- Rash anywhere on your face or genitals.
- Much of your skin itches or nothing seems to ease the itch.
Although the itch of this rash can seem almost unbearable, it is important to avoid scratching and opening of blisters because that may lead to infection.
- Oatmeal baths and cool compresses to ease the discomfort.
- Oral antihistamines to cause drowsiness and help the patient sleep through the night despite the discomfort, although not beneficial in soothing the itch.
- Topical corticosteroids may be helpful early on.
- Oral corticosteroids prescribed by a physician if the rash is severe. These medications are reserved for more extensive cases because of the many side effects of steroids.
Prevention of this dermatitis is optimal by avoiding exposure. Here are some suggestions to help you avoid exposure:
- Begin by learning what the plants look like. The internet is full of pictures to help you identify them.
- Remove it from your gardens. If you are highly sensitive to this plant, it is probably best to ask a professional to assist in this project.
- Bathe immediately. Use lukewarm, soapy water to remove the oil from your skin and wash anything else that has come into contact with the plant, such as your dog, tools, clothes, etc.
- Try a barrier product. A barrier cream is a topical ointment that can be used as a physical barrier between the skin and contaminants that may irritate (contact dermatitis or occupational dermatitis), or infect the skin. They are available without a prescription and may be found at your local pharmacy. However, they are not 100 percent effective.
With these recommendations, you will be on your way to an itch-free summer!