Summer Rashes: How to Spot & Treat Poison Ivy and Poison Oak

August 8, 2017

A popular time for outdoor recreation, summer can expose people to outdoor hazards such as poison oak and poison ivy. To reduce your risk of contact, learn how to identify each plant and find out what to do if you break out in a rash.

Why They Cause Rashes

Approximately half of the population is sensitive to poison oak and poison ivy. When these people come into contact with either plant, they may experience painful, itchy rashes at the contact site and throughout other areas of the body. While they differ in many ways, poison oak and poison ivy both contain a resin called urushiol which impacts the human skin. The resin can be found in each plant's leaves, roots and stem. It can also be transferred in clothing, which can then pass the resin onto the skin.

Recognizing Each Plant

We've all heard the expression, "leaves of three, let it be." While poison ivy plants do have three leaves, other harmless plants also fit this description. Poison ivy plants can also differ based on their regional locations: While eastern poison ivy generally includes rope-like vines, western poison ivy can look more like a shrub. Whatever the case, it's generally best to avoid three-leaved plants that have a glossy appearance, along with jagged edges that come to a point.
Since it's quite effective at blending in with surrounding vegetation, poison oak is not as easy to identify. The plant can grow as a vine or shrub with varying colors that can match other foliage. Most poison oak plants will have fuzzy leaflets with tooth-like edges. In certain instances, poison oak can develop white or green-yellow berries.

Recognizing Symptoms

Poison oak and poison ivy can both cause an allergic reaction called dermatitis. Symptoms include itching, stinging and skin irritation. Many people break out in red rashes, which may or may not include tiny blisters. The blisters usually begin drying up and crusting over in a few days. Most of the time, these rashes can be treated at home, using over-the-counter remedies like calamine lotion, hydrocortisone cream, cool compresses and oral antihistamines.

When to See a Doctor

In rare instances, people can develop severe allergic reactions to poison oak and poison ivy. In these cases, emergency medical attention may become necessary. Seek medical attention if you or a child exhibits any of the following symptoms:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Rash on the face, eyes, lips or genitals
  • Eye or facial swelling
  • Rash covering over 25 percent of the body
  • Pus or yellow fluid leaking from blisters
  • Foul-smelling blisters
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Swollen lymph nodes

Because blisters can become infected when broken, it's important to resist the urge to scratch the affected area. If you do suspect that an infection has occurred, visit your doctor or PhysicianOne Urgent Care for antibiotic treatment.

Mother and daughter happy at the beach
Throughout the visit I felt like the staff really cared. The doctor took his time talking with me about my symptoms, and I felt like he listened to all my concerns and took that into consideration when recommending the right treatment. Thank you!
Hamden, CT
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