You’re spending your summer forest bathing or exploring the great outdoors with your family, having a great time—until you start itching. Next thing you know, you have a painful red rash from poison ivy on your arms, your legs, your stomach… it’s everywhere! Now your doctor is suggesting steroids as poison ivy treatment. What?! Whether you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or simply want to avoid harsh medicines, the good news is there are plenty of other options.

In this post we’ll discuss:

  • What poison ivy is
  • What a poison ivy rash looks like
  • Plus, natural and effective poison ivy treatment

What Is Poison Ivy?

Poison ivy, also known as toxicodendron radicans, is a poisonous Asian and Eastern North American plant that’s part of the cashew and pistachio family. (source)

The plant, which grows throughout most of North America in wooded areas, secretes an oil called urushiol that causes a painful and itchy rash in many people.

What Does Poison Ivy Look Like?

You’ve probably heard the old adage before: Leaves of three let it be.

The poison ivy plant has three leaves at the end of a long stem—one larger leaf is generally at the end of the stem, with two smaller ones flanked at its sides.

Poison ivy leaves are green in the spring and summer, but turn to a deep red in the fall. The leaves on the poison ivy plant can be smooth, rounded, or spiny, and though they are generally waxy and shiny, they may look dull after a rainstorm. (source)

This is what a poison ivy plant looks like in the spring and summer

(image source)

This is what a poison ivy plant looks like in the fall

(image source)

Is Everyone Allergic to Poison Ivy?

Many—but not all—people get a rash from a clear and odorless oil the poison ivy plant secrets called urushiol. This compound is also found in poison oak and poison sumac and can result in the same type of rash poison ivy causes.

About 85 percent of the population is allergic to poison ivy, poison sumac or poison oak, and about 10 to 15 percent are extremely allergic. This is the most common allergic reaction in the U.S., and affects as many as 50 million Americans each year. (source)

Symptoms of Poison Ivy

A poison ivy rash doesn’t develop right away—it generally takes about 12 to 72 hours to appear. And in some cases a rash may not appear for as many as 7-10 days! (source)

If you think you may have come into contact with poison ivy, look for:

  • a red rash
  • bumps, patches, streaking, or leaking blisters
  • swelling
  • itching

Poison Ivy Rash Pictures

A poison ivy rash can range from mild to severe, depending on how much urushiol gets on your skin and how sensitive you are to it. The more severe the poison ivy rash, the more inflamed, swollen, and red the rash will look. A severe poison ivy rash also generally oozes clear fluid. (source)

This is what a more minor case of poison ivy looks like

This is what a poison ivy rash looks like when it begins to blister

This is what a more severe case of poison ivy looks like

(image source)

Is Poison Ivy Contagious?

Contrary to popular belief, a poison ivy rash itself is not contagious, and the fluid in the blisters does not spread the rash. You cannot pass the rash to another person by scratching—even if the rash is oozing. (source)

Many people wrongly believe a poison ivy rash is contagious, because it is slow to present. One family member may react to urushiol days before another. Even in one person, a poison ivy rash may not appear all at once—you may develop a rash on your leg before one presents on your arm, for example. This makes it seem like the rash is spreading. (source)

You can, however, give someone else poison ivy if the urushiol oil is still on your skin. It is very sticky, and can spread easily. Urushiol can linger on unwashed skin, animal fur, sports equipment, and gardening tools for long periods of time. To prevent the spread of poison ivy, be sure to thoroughly wash anything that may have come into contact with poison ivy with soap and water. (source)

Poison Ivy Treatment

Most poison ivy rashes go away without treatment, though they may take about two weeks to heal. (source) Because of this, poison ivy treatment is more about symptom management.

To ease symptoms of poison ivy, try applying:

  • JewelweedThough formal research does not support jewelweed as an effective poison ivy treatment, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that makes this a great remedy to try. Rub a small amount of jewelweed onto poison ivy rashes to ease discomfort. Witch hazel has a similar effect.
  • A baking soda paste: Mix three parts baking soda with one part water. Mix until it forms a paste, then apply to the infected area to relieve itching.
  • Tea tree oil: Research shows tea tree oil has anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, and anti-microbial benefits. Place a few drops onto a cool damp washcloth and apply to the affected area.
  • Undiluted Apple Cider Vinegar: Use a Q-tip to apply undiluted apple cider vinegar to the rash and let dry. This helps draw out toxins and speed up healing.
  • A cool compress: Wet a clean washcloth with cold water, wring out, then, apply to itchy or inflamed skin.
  • Bentonite clay: Research shows bentonite clay is an effective treatment for many types of contact dermatitis. Mix bentonite clay and coconut oil to make a DIY anti-itch cream. Rub into the affected area, let dry, then rinse off.

You can also try:

  • Soaking in a lukewarm oatmeal or baking soda bath: Studies show oatmeal has anti-inflammatory properties. Take short lukewarm oatmeal baths to soothe itchy, dry, or inflamed skin. You can also add one cup of baking soda to the running water.
  • Taking echinacea: This natural antihistamine stimulates the lymphatic system to help eliminate toxins from the body and fight infections. (source)

If all else fails, you can apply Burow’s Solution. This isn’t my favorite since the ingredients include Aluminum Sulfate Tetradecahydrate, Calcium Acetate Monohydrate, and Dextrin; but sometimes you need the big guns.

Natural antihistamines

If discomfort is severe, you may want to take some natural antihistamines in the form of a supplement. (Do not apply a topical antihistamine, which can further irritate a poison ivy rash.) (source) Some good ones include:

  • Quercetin with Bromelain: Several studies support the use of this antioxidant, which is found in onions and apples, as a natural antihistamine. Try this supplement, or add quercetin-rich foods to your diet.
  • Nettle tea: In one study, 300 mg of stinging nettle decreased allergic reactions in 58 percent of participants!
  • Standard Process Antronex: This supplement contains a special liver extract that supports the body’s natural immune system function.
  • Natural vitamin C like camu camu powder: Research suggests vitamin C prevents the secretion of histamine and increases detoxification functions. Researchers recommend taking at least 2 grams per day.
  • Turmeric in the form of a capsule or in turmeric paste: Turmeric contains curcumin, a substance that blocks the release of histamine. It also has powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Try this golden milk latte.

Though poison ivy rashes are generally very itchy, it’s important to avoid scratching or picking at the rash, since that can cause an infection.

If the rash is severe or becomes infected, your doctor can prescribe medications to help with poison ivy treatment. Call your doctor if (source):

  • the rash covers a large portion of the body
  • the rash is on the face or genitals
  • the rash is getting worse despite home treatment
  • you develop swelling of the tongue or throat
  • you have chest tightness or difficulty breathing
  • skin looks infected (look for excessive redness, warmth, pain, swelling, or pus)
  • you have a known severe allergy to poison ivy

It’s All Fun and Games… Until Someone Gets Poison Ivy!

Prevention is the best cure for poison ivy. — source

Here are some tips to reduce your chances of getting poison ivy:

  • Wear long pants and long sleeves when you are in an area that is known to have poison ivy.
  • Thoroughly clean any clothes, garden tools, toys, or sports equipment that may have come into contact with poison ivy. Use soap and water and let air dry.
  • Scrub fingernails with a wet, soapy brush to ensure there is no urushiol stuck under nails.
  • Be careful not to burn yard waste or debris that could have come into contact with poison ivy. This can make the oil become airborne and cause reactions, even severe respiratory distress. (source)

How About You?

Have you or any of your kids ever had poison ivy? What did you use for poison ivy treatment?