How to Treat Poison Ivy and Reduce Discomfort

When it comes to reducing the discomfort caused by a poison ivy rash, the best strategy is prevention — not letting the plant’s toxic oil, called urushiol, come into contact with your skin in the first place.

But accidents happen, and sometimes exposure can’t be prevented. Luckily, most reactions to poison ivy aren’t severe and can be treated at home.

In more severe cases, though, medical attention is necessary to control symptoms and prevent any complications that could cause lasting damage.

When to See a Doctor for Poison Ivy

In most cases, it’s not necessary to see a doctor for a rash caused by poison ivy. But if your reaction is particularly severe or long-lasting, you should seek medical attention.

A severe reaction to poison ivy usually means that “a large body surface area is covered, or there’s extreme inflammation with open skin,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

Other situations in which you should get your rash checked out by a professional include the following:

  • You also have a fever over 100 degrees F (37.8 degrees C).
  • There’s pus or yellow scabs on your rash.
  • Tenderness or itching keeps getting worse or disturbs your sleep.
  • The rash covers your eyes, mouth, or genital area.
  • There’s no sign of improvement after a few weeks.
  • You’re having difficulty breathing after inhaling smoke from burning poison ivy (1).

It’s important to remember that a poison ivy rash is a type of allergic reaction, and that any allergic reaction can be severe — causing extreme swelling and difficulty breathing or swallowing. While rare, this is a medical emergency that requires immediate attention. (2)

Medication for Poison Ivy Rash

If you see a doctor for a severe reaction to poison ivy, you may be prescribed a course of oral steroids, such as prednisone, to reduce inflammation.

You may also be prescribed an antibiotic if your rash has become infected, which can happen if you scratch it and introduce bacteria from your fingernails — especially if you break open any blisters in the process. (3)

Most of the time, though, you’ll be treating poison ivy on your own, and a number of over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are available to reduce swelling and discomfort, including:

Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) These drugs reduce both pain perception and inflammation, so they can actually reduce the severity of your reaction while making you feel it less.

Popular NSAIDs include Advil and Motrin (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen).

Oral Antihistamines While a number of drugs in this category exist, the best choice for poison ivy is probably Benadryl (diphenhydramine), since most other options have a weaker effect. (3)

One side effect of diphenhydramine that may be helpful — if you take it at the right time — is drowsiness, since discomfort from poison ivy can make it difficult to sleep.

Calamine Lotion This lotion contains a combination of zinc oxide and ferric oxide, and has been used since ancient times to soothe skin irritation.

Calamine lotion can also help dry out irritated areas, which can be helpful if your poison ivy reaction includes blistering.

Home Remedies for Poison Ivy

Beyond drugs, there are a number of other approaches you can take to reduce the discomfort of a poison ivy rash and even help facilitate healing.

The first step, though, is one that many people forget — to wash the affected area and any object that may have come into contact with poison ivy.

“Do your best to wash the area immediately with a gentle cleanser,” Dr. Zeichner advises. “Also make sure to wash your clothing in lukewarm soapy water.”

Once that important business is taken care of, here are some other home remedies to try:

Cool, Wet Compresses This involves soaking a towel in cold water, squeezing out excess moisture, and applying it to the affected area for 15 to 30 minutes several times a day.

While applying a hot compress may relieve itching quickly, it doesn’t help speed up the healing process and may even prolong it, according to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology.

For this same reason, it’s best to avoid hot water when you bathe or shower.

Oatmeal or Baking Soda Baths Soaking the affected area in a cold or lukewarm bath containing water and either oatmeal or baking soda can help dry blisters and ease itching, according to the American Skin Association.

To make an oatmeal bath, grind a cup of oats in a food processor or coffee grinder until they have a fine, powdery texture. Run a lukewarm bath and mix in the oats.

If you can’t grind the oats, place whole oats in a muslin or cheesecloth bag or knee-high pantyhose and allow them to steep in the bath water. This method will make cleanup easier.

For a baking soda bath, add half a cup of baking soda to your bath water, then soak in it.

Heavy-Duty Moisturizer Zeichner recommends applying a serious moisturizer to help protect the affected area from irritation.

Good choices include lotions that contain petrolatum, such as Vaseline Intensive Care Advanced Repair, which Zeichner believes strikes a good balance between protection and not feeling greasy or heavy.

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