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Poison Ivy and Contact Dermatitis

If you’re headed outdoors during warm weather, you need to make sure your skin is protected. We always recommend proper sun care. But it’s also important to protect against things like poison ivy. If you’ve ever had a poison ivy reaction, you know they’re not fun. Almost 85% of the population is allergic to poison ivy, oak and sumac; it is the most common allergy in the common. Learn what poison ivy is and what you should do if you develop a rash.

What is poison ivy? 

“Poison ivy” is a term that usually refers to three different plants: poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. Combined, these plants affect about 50 million people each year. All three are common throughout the United States. Poison ivy and poison oak are the ones you’re most likely to find in Tennessee. Each plant contains an oily substance called urushiol. This oil is what causes skin to react to the plant if you are allergic.

Poison ivy [Toxicodendron radicans] grows throughout the continental United States. Though it is usually not found on the west coast. Poison ivy usually looks like a vine or shrub and may have green, white or yellow berries on it. In the spring and fall, the leaves may turn shades of red, yellow or orange.


Poison sumac [Toxicodendron vernix] grows in the Northeast, Midwest and South. Usually, it grows in swampy areas. Most often, sumac is on a tree or looks like a tall shrub. Leaves may turn yellow, orange or red in the fall and spring, and may have yellow or green fruit or flowers.


Poison oak [Toxicodendrondiversilobum] grows in the South and along the Pacific coast. It is most often a low shrub plant that may have yellow or white berries.


What does an allergic reaction look like? 

If you’re allergic, you may begin to experience side effects in the first 24-48 hours. A rash may develop sooner depending on severity of your allergy. This reaction is called contact dermatitis. Most often, skin appears red, blistery and bumpy. The skin will also be itchy or tender. The rash is not contagious to others. In addition, the rash cannot “spread” to areas that did not come into direct contact with the plant. Yet, urushiol can live on surfaces. Because of this, residual oil on clothing or tools can cause reactions. The rash may also develop over time and appear to be spreading.

Should I see a doctor for poison ivy? 

Most people do not need to see a doctor for poison ivy reactions. If your child has poison ivy or a skin reaction, you should call their doctor—especially if it is their first reaction. Sometimes, poison ivy rashes may look like other, more serious reactions. However, you should call your doctor if you: 

If you have difficulty breathing you swallowing, you should call 911 for immediate medical attention. This is a sign of a severe allergic reaction that may be life-threatening.

How is it treated?  

Prevention is the best method for a poison ivy reaction. The old adage is true: “Leaves of three, leave them be.” Being able to identify and avoid poison ivy, oak or sumac is key. In addition, it’s also good to wear protective clothing outside, particularly if you’re in the woods. Long pants and higher socks can help prevent contact with plant oils. Washing your hands and pets after spending time outside can also help.

While most people do not require medical attention, a severe reaction may be treated by a doctor. Your provider may prescribe corticosteroids to alleviate swelling or an antibiotic if the rash is infected.

What can I do at home for poison ivy? 

Home remedies work for most reactions. Remember to call 911 if you have trouble breathing or swallowing. For milder reactions, you might: 

Poison ivy 

Don’t let poison ivy, oak or sumac get you down this summer. An allergic reaction, contact dermatitis, is common. Red, itchy, blistery skin can happen anywhere that comes into direct contact with the plant oil, urushiol. While most reactions don’t require medical attention, you should call 911 if you experience difficulty breathing or swallowing. Prevention is the best method, so remember “leaves of three, leave them be!” 

If you need to schedule an in-person or telemedicine appointment, please call us at 615.859.7546.

At Loven Dermatology, we are passionate about providing our patients with high-quality, individualized dermatological care and treatment. Our providers offer advanced, personalized care for a wide range of hair, skin and nail conditions. Please call us at 615.859.7546 for more information or to schedule your appointment.

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