Poison ivy

February 12, 2009 —

Poison ivy

Watch, then wash or you’ll be scratching, squirming.

Can you picture the torture of having an itch you can’t scratch? Now multiply that by how irritating it would be if the itch was all over your leg, hand, arm or face. This is the pain of a poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac reaction.

Actually an allergic reaction to an oil in the plants called urushiol, your body will alert you when you’ve been in contact with one of these plants. The itchy reactionary rash is a form of contact dermatitis.

Common components of a poison ivy rash include itchy skin, red marks where the plant touched your skin, hives or fluid-filled blisters. This can appear within a few hours of contact with urushiol or up to two days later. The rash will last about a week. It can be a small, subtle line of red bumps or a massive, colorful, swollen display that temporarily transforms your limb or face.

One of the compounding problems of a poison oak, ivy or sumac reaction is that you shouldn’t scratch the rash because the urushiol can remain on your skin without your knowing. Scratch the rash and later rub your face and your face will start reacting to the oil.

You might come into contact with the oil from hands-on gardening or weeding but you could also get it from oil on your gardening tools, pet’s fur or outdoor toys or tools. Also, mowing down the plant can send the oil into the air. The more oil you touch, the more reaction your body will have. Severe reactions can include swollen eyes, a swollen face or large oozing blisters.

Washing off the urushiol is key to treatment; specific products such as Technu are made for removing the oil and can be found at the drugstore. Taking an antihistamine will help subdue a reaction and cool baths and calamine lotion can help relieve symptoms. Sometimes an inflammation-reducing topical cream is also needed. If your reaction is severe or includes a high fever, the symptoms won’t abate, the rash seems infected or won’t disappear, please call your health practitioner. If your mouth or throat starts swelling and it’s difficult to breathe, call 911 immediately.

The safest way to prevent a reaction is to avoid contact with these plants. Wear gloves and long-sleeved shirts and long pants when working outdoors and be aware of what you’re touching. Poison oak grows as a vine or shrub with leaves similar to oak leaves. The leafs are usually in clusters of three but can vary up to clusters of seven leaves. Poison sumac can have anywhere from seven to 13 leaves per stem and grows as a tree or bush. With smooth edges and pointy tips, it is usually found in wet, wooded areas. Poison ivy – probably the most likely culprit in Iowa – usually has leaf clusters of three. While it can grow as a bush it more often is seen as a climbing, spreading vine that may wrap up a tree stem or wind through grass.

For more information visit familydoctor.org and search ‘poison ivy’ or to see photos of the plant, check www.poison-ivy.org.


Courtney Tompkins has been part of the DMU marketing team since Nov. 2005 and loves promoting a school she believes in so thoroughly. Proud daughter and patient of DMU alumni, Courtney knows, first-hand, that Des Moines University is doing a world of good. A fan of all outdoor festivals, fruity drinks and nearly all edibles, she has a hard time narrowing down her list of favorite places to go and things to do but lists the Iowa State Fair as an all-time fave. She loves her 8-minute commute to DMU from Urbandale, a suburb of Des Moines. She and husband Tyler are owned by three large dogs, Tonka, Tucker and Tank.