Skip to content

Does the world outside make you itch? Warmer months can bring you in contact with any number of scratchy culprits: poison ivy, bug bites, and sunburn, to name a few.

From a survival perspective, there isn’t a good explanation for why we itch. One theory goes that animals itch in order to get parasites off their skin, and our desire to scratch an itch could be a carryover from that instinct.

Another possible explanation is that pain and itch engage many of the same areas of the brain. When you scratch an itch, you cause yourself enough pain to relive the itch, temporarily. Regardless, itches are best left unscratched.

Find out what happens to your skin when you develop an itch.

Never Too Old for Poison Ivy

“I’ve had patients in their late 70s come in with their first case of poison ivy,” says Lisa A. Garner, MD, FAAD, clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. “People think if they’ve never had poison ivy, they never will,” she says. But that’s not the case.  The CDC estimates that 80% to 90% of adults are allergic to urushiol, the oil in poison ivy -- and poison oak and poison sumac -- that causes the reaction.

It is true that you can come in contact with poison ivy and not develop a rash the first time. Below the surface, however, your immune system could be arming itself for the next exposure. The next time you are exposed to urushiol, you’re likely to have a reaction.  

Some, but not all people, may see their sensitivity to poison ivy decline as they get older, Garner says.

Dealing With Poison Ivy’s Rash

Depending on how sensitive you are and how much poison ivy gets on your skin, an itchy red rash will start to develop anywhere from 24 to 72 hours after contact. As your immune system battles with urushiol, the area may become inflamed and very itchy. The rash often turns into oozing blisters.

It may seem almost impossible not to scratch the rash, but Pamela Scheinman, MD, director of the Contact Dermatitis and Occupational Dermatology Unit at Tufts Medical Center, advises against it. Vigorous scratching can break the skin. “If the skin barrier is not intact, the risk of bacterial infection goes up,” Scheinman says.

Usually, poison ivy rash is at its worst one week after exposure. Unless you have a severe case of poison ivy, the rash should go away within one to two weeks.

To relieve itching, try calamine lotion, an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream, or antihistamine.

How Poison Ivy Does and Does Not Spread

The idea that poison ivy rash spreads from one part of your body to another is a common but understandable myth.

How Can You Stop an Itch?

Quiz yourself about how to treat poison ivy, sunburn, and more.
Get Started

WebMD Video Series

Click here to wach video: Poison Ivy Pitfalls

It's not just summer. Poison ivy and its nasty cousins, poison sumac and poison oak, strike year round.

Click here to watch video: Poison Ivy Pitfalls