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Health and Fitness News

Battling Poison Ivy

What you need to know about the three-leafed terror

Hiking in the woods, clearing out flower beds, or playing in the yard seem harmless enough until you become mysteriously covered in an itchy rash. It blends in with its surroundings making it difficult to recognize, but once you’ve rubbed against poison ivy and wound up with a rash, you realize the need to be vigilant about avoiding the three-leafed plant.

Keep reading to learn how to identify poison ivy, ways to avoid it, and what to do if you’re exposed.

It Comes in Threes

What you want to keep an eye out for are plants whose stems have three leaves. The poison ivy plant grows close to the ground like a weed or small shrub. Some varieties grow into a hairy, rope-like vine that climbs trees. The leaves are typically green in the summer and change to red in the fall. There may also be yellow or green flowers and berries.

The poisonous part of the plant is found in the oily sap that’s found on the leaves, fruit, stems, and even the roots. Called urushiol, this oil is what eight to 9 out of 10 people are allergic to. If you’re the one who isn’t allergic, count yourself fortunate. But be warned—you can actually become allergic later in life, even if it doesn’t affect you now.

Here Comes the Rash

All it takes is exposure to 50 micrograms (smaller than one grain of salt) of urushiol for you to break out in an itchy rash. The severity of the rash depends on how much touched your skin and how allergic you are to it. A rash may develop after touching an actual poison ivy plant, touching items such as shoes, clothing, garden tools, or pets that have touched poison ivy, or from being exposed to the smoke from a burning poison ivy plant. Inhaling the sap-coated soot may cause dangerous irritation and inflammation throughout your respiratory system.

After your first exposure to poison ivy, you may not get a rash, but after that your risk increases. Your skin immediately begins to absorb the oil and a rash may develop in a few hours, a day, or a week. The contact dermatitis rash is made of red bumps or blisters that itch intensely. Sometimes the bumps form a line where a leaf brushed your skin. After the blisters burst, the area may crust over.

Scratching the rash won’t cause it to spread, but it may lead to infection. The rash only spreads if you touch remaining oils on your skin and then touch other body parts. After a week or two, the rash typically goes away on its own. However, you’ll want to call your doctor if you develop a fever; have difficulty breathing; the blisters are weepy; the rash covers a large part of your body; or it gets in your mouth, eyes, or private parts.

Contrary to what you may believe, a poison ivy rash is not contagious. A person has to touch the actual oils to develop a rash. Not even the weepy liquid that leaks from your poison ivy rash can spread the rash. Only the oils from the plant.

Get Rid of It

The best way to prevent a poison ivy rash is to avoid contact with the plants. Know what to look for and stay aware of what you’re touching or walking through. Anytime you’re in an area with poison ivy plants, wear shoes, long pants, and possibly gloves. If there’s a chance you may have touched a poison ivy plant, immediately scrub your skin with degreasing soap and warm water or wash with rubbing alcohol. Rinse the skin thoroughly.

An itchy rash may be treated with hydrocortisone cream, wet compresses, or calamine lotion. An oral antihistamine may also help relieve itching. Call 911 if you see someone experience a severe allergic reaction or struggling to breathe because of poison ivy.