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Poison Oak and Poison Ivy Dermatitis

If you develop an itchy, red rash after spending time outdoors you may have brushed against a poison ivy or poison oak plant. What should you do? According to research or other evidence, the following self-care steps may be helpful.
Poison Oak and Poison Ivy Dermatitis: Main Image

About This Condition

Certain plants in the Toxicodendron (formerly Rhus) genus contain a potent resin called urushiol that, when it comes in contact with skin, can cause a severe allergic reaction in people who are sensitive to it—approximately 85% of the population, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

Plants in this group include Western poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum), Atlantic poison oak (T. pubescens), poison ivy (T. radicans), and poison sumac (T. vernix).


The skin rash caused by the plant resin urushiol is a form of “contact dermatitis.” It is a red, swollen, blistering rash that is both painful and itchy. The blisters can become weepy, but the fluid from them does not spread the rash. Once developed, the rash is not contagious or spread by scratching. Scratching should nevertheless be discouraged to prevent the blisters from becoming infected. The rash can be severe but it is self-limiting, which means it will eventually resolve with no treatment. Most people seek treatment anyway for relief from the symptoms.

Healthy Lifestyle Tips

When it comes to poison oak and ivy, prevention is truly the best cure. An easy rhyme helps one avoid touching these plants when venturing into the forests and meadows where they grow: “Leaves of three, let them be.”

Contact with poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac can be avoided by staying out of dense brush, wearing long clothes, and changing clothes after coming in contact with the plants. Dogs should be prevented from roaming freely through such areas, because they can pick up the resin on their fur and transmit it to people by direct contact or via furniture. Toxicodendron plants must never be burned because the oil can severely damage the lungs or be fatal if inhaled as smoke. The plant resin, urushiol, remains potent for years, even when the plant itself has died.

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The information presented by Healthnotes is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications. Information expires June 2016.

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