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Sarasota Dermatology Blog

Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, And Poison Sumac Rashes

Posted on 09. Feb, 2009 by in Rashes

Itching is not always the first symptom to occur when one comes in contact with a poisonous plant. For many of my patients, the first realization that they might have come in contact with poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac, occurs when they consult with me about a rash that they have developed. These vicious weeds are the single most common cause of allergic reactions in the United States.

A rash from these weeds develops when the skin comes in contact with an oil called urushiol (you-roo-shee-ol) Urushiol is found in the sap of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. It oozes forth from any broken part of the plant, including the roots, stems, and leaves. After exposure to air, urushiol turns brownish-black, making it easier to spot.

Contact with urushiol can occur in three ways:

  1. Direct contact – touching the sap of the toxic plant.
  2. Indirect contact – touching something to which urushiol has spread. The oil can stick to clothing, animal hair or skin, sports equipment, basically any object that has come into contact with any broken part of the plant.
  3. Contact with airborne urushiol particles – which can occur from the burning of the poisonous plants. This can cause a rash if and when it comes in contact with your skin.

A rash occurring from any one of these plants can affect almost any part of your body, especially where your skin is most thin. Redness and swelling occur first, usually followed by blisters and severe itching. Blister fluid from these rashes does not spread the rash. In a couple days, the blisters may become crusted and begin to scale. The rash traditionally takes 10 days or longer to heal.

The best advice I can offer to help prevent the misery of a poison ivy rash is – to STAY AWAY. The best way to know which plants to avoid is by learning to identify these poisonous plants. Their appearance may change slightly through the seasons, but they remain toxic year round. A key feature in identifying poison ivy and poison oak is in the leaves: they consistently come in threes. Therefore, the popular saying “leaves of three, beware of me,” is a good rule of thumb to follow.

Follow these simple rules if you think you have been exposed to poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac:

  • Wash the exposed area(s) immediately with running water. The water should keep the urushiol from spreading to other parts of your body. Do not use soap at this point. Soap can pick up some of the urushiol and spread it to other parts of your body.
  • Take a regular shower with soap and warm water within 30 minutes of being exposed. Make sure you have already cleansed the exposed area with running water before using soap.
  • Wash you clothing as soon as possible. Don’t wait and do not do a full load of laundry with the clothing you think has been exposed to the poisonous plant. You can transfer the urushiol to rugs or furniture if you’re not careful.
  • Make sure you clean any other item(s) (like camping equipment, fishing gear, etc) that may have come in contact with the oil.
  • You can relieve the itching of mild rashes by taking cool showers and applying over-the-counter products like calamine lotion or Burrow’s solution. Soaking in a lukewarm bath with an oatmeal or baking soda solution can be used to ease itching and dry oozing blisters.

I always recommend you consult a board certified dermatologist if you know you have been exposed to one of these weeds. A dermatologist can properly diagnose your rash and may prescribe cortisone or other medicines that can prevent blisters from forming.

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