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Poison Ivy, Oak, or Sumac


Topic Overview

What are poison ivy, oak, and sumac?

Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are plants that can cause a skin rash called allergic contact dermatitisClick here to see an illustration. when they touch your skin. The red, uncomfortable, and itchy rash often shows up in lines or streaks and is marked by fluid-filled bumps (blisters) or large raised areas (hives). It is the most common skin problem caused by contact with plants (plant dermatitis).

See a picture of poison ivy, oak, and sumac leavesClick here to see an illustration..

What causes a poison ivy, oak, or sumac rash?

The rash is caused by contact with an oil (urushiol) found in poison ivy, oak, or sumac. The oil is present in all parts of the plants, including the leaves, stems, flowers, berries, and roots. Urushiol is an allergen, so the rash is actually an allergic reaction to the oil in these plants. Indirect contact with urushiol can also cause the rash. This may happen when you touch clothing, pet fur, sporting gear, gardening tools, or other objects that have come in contact with one of these plants. But urushiol does not cause a rash on everyone who gets it on his or her skin.

What are the symptoms of the rash?

The usual symptoms of the rash are:

  • Itchy skin where the plant touched your skin.
  • Red streaks or general redness where the plant brushed against the skin.
  • Small bumps or larger raised areas (hives).
  • Blisters filled with fluid that may leak out.

The rash usually appears 8 to 48 hours after your contact with the urushiol. But it can occur from 5 hours to 15 days after touching the plant.1 The rash usually takes more than a week to show up the first time you get urushiol on your skin. But the rash develops much more quickly (within 1 to 2 days) after later contacts. The rash will continue to develop in new areas over several days but only on the parts of your skin that had contact with the urushiol or those parts where the urushiol was spread by touching.

The rash is not contagious. You cannot catch or spread a rash after it appears, even if you touch it or the blister fluid, because the urushiol will already be absorbed or washed off the skin. The rash may seem to be spreading. But either it is still developing from earlier contact or you have touched something that still has urushiol on it.

The more urushiol you come in contact with, the more severe your skin reaction. Severe reactions to smaller amounts of urushiol also may occur in people who are highly sensitive to urushiol. Serious symptoms may include:

  • Swelling of the face, mouth, neck, genitals, or eyelids (which may prevent the eyes from opening).
  • Widespread, large blisters that ooze large amounts of fluid.

Without treatment, the rash usually lasts about 10 days to 3 weeks. But in people who are very sensitive to urushiol, the rash may take up to 6 weeks to heal.

How is the rash diagnosed?

The rash usually is diagnosed during a physical exam. Your doctor will examine the rash and ask questions to find out when you were exposed to the plant and how long it took the rash to develop. If you are not sure whether you were exposed to a plant, he or she will ask about your outdoor activities, work, and hobbies.

How is the rash treated?

Most poison ivy, oak, or sumac rashes can be treated successfully at home. Initial treatment consists of washing the area with water immediately after contact with the plants. To relieve symptoms, use wet compresses and take cool baths. Nonprescription antihistamines and calamine lotion also may help relieve symptoms. Moderate or severe cases of the rash may require treatment by a doctor, who may prescribe corticosteroid pills, creams, ointments, or shots (injections).

How can I prevent the rash from poison ivy, oak, and sumac?

The best way to prevent the rash is to learn to identify and avoid the plants. When you cannot avoid contact with the plants, heavy clothing (long pants, long-sleeved shirt, and vinyl gloves) and barrier creams or lotions may help protect you.

Frequently Asked Questions

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