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Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac -- the Basics


How Are Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac Rashes Diagnosed?

Poison ivy, oak, and sumac are generally diagnosed by their common symptoms of a rash, blisters, and itching following activity outside in a forest or field, but if you have any doubt, ask your doctor.

How Are These Rashes Treated?

Self-care for a mild rash includes: 

  • Wash the area well with mild soap and lukewarm water as soon as possible after contact. 
  • Wash all clothes, shoes, socks, tools, pets, and toys that may have become contaminated.
  • Cool compresses may help during the blistering phase.
  • Use a topical corticosteroid cream on the rash as directed by your doctor.
  • Try calamine lotion for the itching, but avoid skin products that contain anesthetics or antihistamines, which can cause their own allergic reaction.
  • To help relieve the itch, try cool showers or a mixture of baking soda and water applied to the area. If sleep is a problem because of the itching, try an over-the-counter antihistamine at night. 

Call your doctor or a dermatologist for: 

  • Severe blistering, swelling, and itching
  • Symptoms in sensitive areas such as the eyes, lips, throat, or genitals
  • Fever
  • A rash over large areas of your body
  • A rash lasting longer than a week to 10 days
  • Blisters that become infected with pus

Get immediate medical help for any difficulty breathing or severe coughing after exposure to burning plants.

In some cases, an oral steroid or other medication may be needed to relieve severe symptoms.

Can I Prevent Rashes From Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac?

  • Remember the old adage: "Leaflets three, let them be." Poison ivy and poison oak have a triple-leaf structure you can learn to recognize -- and then avoid.
  • Avoid any contact with these plants when possible.
  • Cover your skin completely when hiking, camping, or working in forests and around shrubs; wear long sleeves, long pants, gloves, socks, and boots. Remember that you can also get a rash from indirect contact from clothes, pets, or tools that have urushiol on them.
  • Ask your doctor about over-the-counter skin products that contain a barrier such as bentoquatam to help protect the skin from urushiol if you work outside in forestry or other jobs at risk of frequent exposure. 

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on April 29, 2014
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