As summer fades into fall, many of us will be heading out to hike and enjoy the last bits of warmth before winter comes. Poison oak and ivy are very prevalent in wooded areas, so you’re going to want to know how to handle exposure to them.
Poison ivy is a three-leafed plant that grows like a vine or shrub. The edges of the leaves are light green and serrated when the plant is young. As it ages, the color darkens. Poison oak is structured a lot like poison ivy, but the number of leaves per stem varies. Many times there are three, but there can be five or seven leaves per stem as well. The leaves of poison oak more closely resemble those of an oak tree. Poison ivy leaves are often waxy and shiny in appearance, while poison oak leaves are fuzzy or hairy textured. These plants are not actually poison, and most people do not have severe reactions to them. These ‘poisonous’ plants contain a very persistent and sticky oil called urushiol. It’s contained in every part of the plant, and even sticks around on dead plants. Even removing poison ivy with gloves and other protective equipment can be dangerous, as the oil clings to clothing. The skin’s reaction to poison plant exposure is a type of contact dermatitis, a condition caused by exposure to allergens or other irritants.
The oil in poison ivy is absorbed by the skin very quickly. To prevent any rash, you have mere minutes to fully treat the affected skin. There are products specifically designed for cleaning oils from the skin, but rubbing alcohol also works well. Wash any areas of your skin that may have been exposed. Carefully remove exposed clothing and wash them as soon as possible to avoid re-exposure. Regardless of whether your hands were exposed, you should wash your hands thoroughly after washing your skin. This includes cleaning under the fingernails. It’s important to be gentle with your skin, as scrubbing can spread the oil and irritate the skin, hastening its absorption. Even if it’s been more than a few minutes after exposure, you should still wash your skin as soon as possible. A rash doesn’t form immediately, so keep an eye on your skin.
If you do develop a rash from poison ivy or oak, you’re going to want to scratch those itches. The reaction to poison oak/ivy is incredibly itchy, but scratching can lead to irritation and scarring in some cases. The rash develops between 12 and 48 hours after exposure, typically. From start to finish, it will be itchy.
How do you keep yourself from scratching despite the extreme discomfort of this oil? You’re going to need some help. Even though most reactions don’t require a diagnosis, your dermatologist is going to have the tools and resources to soothe your rash better than anyone or anything else. Treating a contact dermatitis reaction is not always easy. But it is a lot easier when you have the advice of a doctor who understands your skin. There are many topical ointments that can soothe the itching and there are a few ways you can care for your skin to help prevent intense itching. Apply cold compresses to the rash, try oatmeal or baking soda baths in lukewarm water too! There’s a common myth that scratching can spread the rash and while this is untrue, it can cause other problems. If your skin starts to look infected, or the rash doesn’t clear up in two or three weeks, you should probably reach out to your doctor once again.
Poison ivy and poison oak are frustrating plants that make outdoor adventuring a little nerve-wracking. If you’ve recently been exposed to one of these poisonous plants, find some relief with the experts at Northeast Dermatology Associates.
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