Poison ivy is one of the most common toxic plants in the United States. The plant produces urushiol, an oily coating or sap that can cause a red, itchy rash and blisters when it comes in contact with your skin. You can find poison ivy in all kinds of terrain in the city and the country, in every state in the U.S. except California, Hawaii and Alaska. The plant is easily identifiable with its distinctive pattern of three leaves on the stem, which is why children are often told, “Leaves of three, let them be!” Poison ivy is the same family as poison oak and poison sumac. Common Causes of Poison Ivy Most often, you get the poison ivy rash by directly coming into contact with the plant. For example, you might brush against it while walking through some bush, and the urushiol is transferred to your leg. Or you can touch the plant and then touch other parts of your body–like your face–and spread the sap that way. The rash or fluids in blisters caused by poison ivy aren’t contagious, but sap left on objects, like door knobs or a jacket, can be picked up by someone else and spread. Pets can transfer urushiol on their fur too. It is also possible to be affected by poison ivy if it’s burned, as the oil is carried in the smoke. The rash caused by poison ivy is called contact dermatitis. It can occur as soon as you come in contact with the sap or up to a day or two later. Poison Ivy Treatment at Home Poison ivy symptoms are most often treatable at home. The most important action is to thoroughly wash the affected area with soap and water as quickly as possible. Also make sure your hands, including under your nails, are cleaned of any sap. This will prevent the oil from spreading and from contaminating other parts of your body. Pat your skin dry gently; do not rub as this can irritate the skin. Wash your clothing and any tools or equipment you handled that may have been in contact with the plants. Once your skin has been cleaned, you may find relief from the itching by trying these remedies: Cold compresses: Soak a clean washcloth with clean, cold water and wring it as dry as possible. Place the cloth on the rash for about 15 to 30 minutes. This can be repeated several times a day. Oatmeal baths: Add oatmeal or oatmeal bath treatment to a running bath and soak in the tub for about a half hour. Topical lotions and creams: Over-the-counter products, such as calamine lotion and hydrocortisone creams (applied lightly) can help reduce itching and swelling. Over-the-counter antihistamine medications, such as Benadryl It is very important not to scratch the rash or pop any blisters, as this can cause an opening for infection. When to See a Doctor for Poison Ivy For the most part, poison ivy can be treated at home, but there are some situations when you will need to seek medical or even emergency help. Most people have some reaction to poison ivy, but some are allergic to the sap, which makes their reactions more severe and perhaps life threatening. If you experience any of these signs and symptoms, call 911 or go to an emergency department right away: Severe swelling Swelling of the lips and tongue Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing Even if you aren’t allergic to poison ivy, you may need to see a doctor if you develop complications or you have a severe poison ivy reaction, such as: The rash covers your face (lips, eyes, mouth) or genitals. The rash covers more than a quarter of your body’s surface. You breathed in smoke from burning poison ivy. Treatment at home does not relieve the rash or itch. If you have a poison ivy rash or blisters, scratching can cause breaks in the skin that can become infected. If you develop any signs or symptoms of an infection, you should see a doctor as soon as possible. These include: Pus or discharge from the skin An odor coming from the fluid in the blisters Increasing redness around the wound Increasing pain around the wound Fever Fatigue and general feeling of being unwell Who to See for Poison Ivy If you are experiencing a severe reaction or your home treatment isn’t working, you would normally see your family doctor or primary care physician. However, if you develop any signs of an allergic reaction or an infection, you may see an emergency room doctor, who would treat you first. Both your family doctor or the emergency room doctor could refer you to a dermatologist, a skin specialist, if they believe you need more specialized care. You may need a referral to ensure your insurance will cover the cost of a specialist. Poison ivy is a very common plant and many children and adults come into contact with it at some point in their life. The trick to minimizing the discomfort is to limit the amount of skin affected and to act quickly to remove as much of the sap as possible. The good news is the itching and rash usually disappear within a few days.