How to recognize poison ivy and what to do if you accidentally touch it

Contact with poison ivy causes blisters on the skin. If you wash it quickly, you can prevent the dermatitis it causes.

How to recognize poison ivy and what to do if you accidentally touch it

Last update: January 19, 2024

Nature is generous in offering us a variety of plants. But among them you can find species that are dangerous to human health. One of the most famous is poison ivy.

Contact with leaves, stems or roots of a plant may cause skin rash. Although the problem is usually limited to a specific area of ​​the skin, in some cases it becomes a widespread and serious reaction.

If you enjoy gardening or walking in natural landscapes and parks, it is important to learn to recognize this. Likewise, if you have children, it is helpful to teach them to avoid contact with it.

What is poison ivy?

Scientific name of the plant in question: Toxicodendron radicals. It belongs to the Anacardiaceae family and can grow in various geographic regions. Forest Service U.S.A.

Although it is called ivy, it is not from the family Hedera. It is confused with them because it is also a climbing shrub.

Its appearance varies, but in general The leaves are grouped in threes. This is where the popular verse comes from, serving as a mnemonic for children not to touch the plant: “leaves of three, let them be.”

These leaves may be pointed or irregularly shaped and have jagged edges. Except, its color can change depending on the season. They are not green all year round and turn red in the fall or spring.

ivy leavesivy leaves
Toxicodendron radicals with a characteristic grouping of three leaves.

Types of poison ivy

Although we almost always refer to Toxicodendron radicals When talking about poison ivy and its allergic effects on the skin, we must consider other species of the same genus. These are related plants that can also cause skin reactions.

One of them is Toxicodendron diversilobum or Pacific poison oak. It has more rounded leaves and usually has three leaves. Although you can find stems with five, seven and even nine leaves. Despite the name, it is not an oak tree. Its main location is the Rocky Mountain region of the United States.

Toxicodendron diversilobum.Toxicodendron diversilobum.
Toxicodendron diversilobum.

Atlantic poison oak Toxicodendron pubescent, in turn, is located on the other coast of the United States, to the east. Its distinctive feature is berries with small hairs. As for the leaves, like the previous species, they fall off in the fall.

Toxicodendron pubescent.Toxicodendron pubescent.
Toxicodendron pubescent.

Another plant from the same family. Toxicodendron primordium or poison sumac. Grows in very wet and even flooded soils. Its leaves are elongated, with 7 to 13 on each stem. It has red veins and gray or white berries.

Poison sumac.Poison sumac.
Berries Toxicodendron primordium.

Finally, in Asia there is a special variety called lacquer wood. Scientific name Toxicodendron vernifluum. It blooms in the summer season, its leaves are larger and can be grouped in more than ten.

Chinese lacquer wood.Chinese lacquer wood.
Toxicodendron vernifluum.

What happens if I touch poison ivy?

Despite the differences between the types, they have one thing in common: an oil called urushiol. The skin comes into contact with it accidentally when it comes out through broken parts of the plant.

Urushiol has an anti-inflammatory effect. For human cells, it is a irritant that causes the release of substances associated with inflammation, such as cytokines.

The problem is that its absorption occurs very quickly. Once it hits the skin, it almost immediately penetrates the cells and causes a reaction.

This reaction is contact dermatitis. According to US statistics, more than half of the country’s population is sensitive to urushiol, making them prone to developing a poison ivy allergy.

The symptoms that appear on the skin after contact are as follows:

  • severe itching
  • Redness
  • Blisters

These hives are located only in the area touched by the urushiol. Therefore, the degree will depend on the degree of exposure of the plant to oil.

Reactions are possible in places distant from the initial contact if we transfer urushiol to another part of the body when scratching. The oil could also remain on clothing or objects, which could expose us in the future.

The risk of severe symptoms increases if the oil is inhaled. For example, when smoke comes from a burning plant. The irritation can affect the lungs and cause difficulty breathing.

What does urushiol dermatitis look like?

Poison ivy rash usually appears as a series of small, slightly raised, itchy blisters and which are grouped on a red background. Sometimes the lesions ooze clear fluid.

Poison ivy rash.Poison ivy rash.
The classic rash has a linear shape, but it varies depending on the area of ​​exposed skin.

How dangerous is poison ivy?

Poison ivy may be considered dangerous for people with hypersensitivity to urushiol. In them, the possibility of a generalized reaction may lead to a risk of anaphylaxis affecting the respiratory tract.

Fortunately, this situation is the least common. Typically, most people have a localized rash, and a small group of people have an accompanying fever.

Because of this, Medical attention is unlikely to be needed after contact with the plant. Consultation will only be necessary if generalized allergy symptoms are present or if skin lesions persist beyond the estimated time.

How long does it take for the rash to go away?

Poison ivy dermatitis can begin within hours of touching the plant, but it can also appear within 5 days of exposure. The duration of the rash varies depending on the severity of the reaction, although On average, complete healing takes from 7 to 14 days.

Poison ivy blisters and skin reactions are not contagious. The only way for dermatitis to develop is through direct contact with urushiol, even without touching the plant, as can be the case, for example, with garden objects.

If there is superinfection of the wound or noticeable inflammation, this time may be increased. In such cases, the doctor may prescribe antibiotics or corticosteroids, respectively, to speed up the healing process.

What to do if you touch poison ivy?

According to the American Academy of Dermatology guidelines, you need to act quickly, within the first 10 to 20 minutes of exposure. The next steps are as follows:

  1. Wash skin that has come into contact with the plant: You can use alcohol or white soap. The idea is to gently rub over the affected area, avoiding too much rubbing, as you may spread the urushiol oil elsewhere.
  2. Rinse with cold water: Use plenty of water to rinse off the cleaner and urushiol oil.
  3. Cleaning under the nails: Basically, the substance remains there even if we don’t realize it. First of all, because of the unconscious scratching that we do.

Once the above is done, apply products to soothe the irritation. Antihistamine creams are helpful, but you can also use a mixture of half a cup of baking soda with a small amount of colloidal oatmeal.

If you think urushiol oil has gotten on items or clothing, try to clean them without touching them too hard. When washing, wear gloves and do not mix clothes with other clean ones. The persistence of the oil may cause a reaction later.

When to see a doctor?

A reaction to poison ivy is almost never serious. And if you act quickly to remove the urushiol oil, you may have luck avoiding a skin rash upon contact.

In any case, it is important to monitor some symptoms for 7 to 14 days afterward. If any of the following occur, it is best to consult a doctor:

  • Persistent fever.
  • Labored breathing.
  • Pus indicates a bacterial infection caused by dermatitis.
  • Inflammation that extends beyond the blisters will require anti-inflammatory medications.

The best way to get rid of poison ivy is to avoid contact. Eliminate it from the garden if you find it. and if you spot it in rough terrain, stay away from it by asking your children and pets to keep their distance.

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