How are reactions to poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac treated?

Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac produce a resin (think of it like an oil) containing reactive, unstable molecules. The unstable molecules as a group are known as "urushiol." They react with our skin, forming complexes to which the body first becomes sensitized, then reacts. The reaction can take some time, so usually the rash appears 6 to 24 hours after contact.

Immediately after contact, washing with soap and water may reduce the risk of a reaction. However, once the rash has appeared, the complexes have been formed and cannot be washed off.

Fortunately, because they are still bound to the skin, the fluid from blisters that may form do not have urushiol in them and therefore cannot spread it further. Treatment of the rash is largely to help the symptoms of itching and includes making sure there is no more exposure (wash clothes with detergent and hot water, clean tools or other items with soap and water) and topical steroid creams. Antihistamines may help somewhat with symptoms, as well.
Clifford W. Bassett, MD
Allergy & Immunology
If you have an allergic reaction to poison ivy, you may try various over-the-counter barrier- or lanolin-type creams that are now designed to prevent the oil in the poison ivy/sumac family of plants that cause the horrible itching, rashes and blisters associated with this condition. Some individuals with severe reactions will need prescription medication for proper treatment.
Watch this video to see an easy home remedy to soothe the pain of poison ivy.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.