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Protect Hands from Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac

Summertime means enjoying beautiful hikes outdoors, weeding your garden, or just taking the dog for leisurely walk. But these activities, while seemingly sounding serene and relaxing, can lead to another summer pastime…battling a bad case of poison ivy.

Poison ivy is a vine or shrub that has three glossy leaves and grows in much of the United States and Asia. It can cause an itchy, red rash if a person who’s allergic to the plant encounters it. While not all people experience a rash after coming in contact with poison ivy, an estimated 85 percent of us do.

What causes a poison ivy rash? A poison ivy rash is the result of exposure to an oily resin known as urushiol. This sticky resin is present in the leaves, stems, and roots of the poison ivy plant. The same oil is also present in plants like poison oak and poison sumac. When your skin comes in contact with this oil, you may experience a rash. The rash is itchy and usually causes redness and blistering. Sometimes the rash can take several days to develop.

How does a poison ivy rash spread? If a person has a poison ivy rash on their hands or arms and shakes the hand or touches another person, the person without poison ivy won’t get it. However, there are some scenarios where the urushiol oil that causes a poison ivy rash can be spread. These include:

  • Animals: A pet, such as a dog or cat, can encounter poison ivy leaves and the oils can stick on their fur. If you pet the fur, it’s possible that you can get poison ivy from contact with the oil. The oil can also cover their paws if they walk through a patch of poison ivy. Anytime you walk your dog outdoors, especially in a wooded setting or if they dart into a tree line or field, wash their coat and feet thoroughly once back at home. The same is true for a pet’s leash and toys.

  • Clothing: Just like animal fur, clothing fibers can transfer poison ivy oils. If you’ve been out in a wooded setting or gardening all day, make sure to remove your clothes carefully to launder. If you don’t wash an article of clothing with soap and water after wearing it, you can potentially get a rash of poison ivy again. The same is true for coming in contact with other people’s clothing that also has the poison ivy oils on it.

  • Garden and outdoor tools: Even if you wear gloves to protect your hands from poison ivy while gardening or working outdoors, the poison ivy oils can spread to the tools. If you then touch the tools without cleaning them, you can get poison ivy. The oils can linger on tools for years if they aren’t cleaned with soap and water or rubbing alcohol.

  • Recreational equipment: In addition to gardening tools, your recreational equipment can encounter poison ivy and cause you to get a rash. Examples include golf clubs, hiking poles, or bicycles. Because it can sometimes take days for a poison ivy rash to appear, you may have unknowingly come in contact with it indirectly through this equipment, then get a rash.

Can a poison ivy rash spread across the body? A poison ivy skin reaction occurs where the leaves and the oil come in contact with your skin. The rash isn’t contagious from place to place on your body. For example, if you have the rash on your hands, you can’t spread it to your legs or abdomen through touch. An exception is if you haven’t washed your hands or body after exposure and the oil remains on your skin.

However, it’s possible that you may observe the rash spreading. This is because the rash can develop more slowly on different parts of the body. Also, if you are repeatedly exposed to contaminated objects, such as clothing with poison ivy oil on it, you can experience a poison ivy rash again.

What are some steps to prevent a poison ivy rash from spreading?

  • Wash skin with soap and cool or lukewarm water after exposure; washing with hot water opens your pores; thus allowing the oil to be absorbed into your skin

  • Wash all clothing with soap and water after exposure.

  • Wash any gardening or outdoor equipment with soap and water or rubbing alcohol after exposure.

  • Regularly bath pets that go outdoors, especially if they may have come in contact with poison ivy oil.

Remember that a poison ivy rash doesn’t spread from person to person or place to place on a person’s body. So, if you get the rash again after an initial exposure, it’s important to consider if you may have indirectly come in contact with a pet or object that’s still contaminated with the urushiol.

Although a poison ivy rash usually lasts about one to three weeks, the poison ivy oil can last years on surfaces that haven’t been cleaned. Also, if for any reason a person burns poison ivy leaves, the oil can travel through air and cause a rash in the nasal passages or other airways.

For these reasons, ensure that you clean your skin, clothes, pets, and any outdoor equipment to avoid re-exposure to poison ivy and developing a bothersome rash again.

If you think you’ve touched one of these plants, acting quickly may prevent a rash. Immediately wash the part of your skin that touched the plant with one of the following:

  • Rubbing alcohol

  • Poison ivy, oak, and sumac wash (cleanser, soap, or towelettes)

  • Dishwashing soap

  • Laundry detergent

  • Wash your skin gently. Scrubbing can cause a rash because you rub the plant’s oil, which is what leads to a rash, into your skin.

  • Thoroughly rinse with plenty of cool water. This removes the rubbing alcohol or other product from your skin. Leaving one of these products on your skin could irritate your skin, causing a different type of rash.

  • Wash under your nails. This will remove any oil that may have gotten trapped there.

You want to do the above immediately after coming into contact with the plant or anything that has the plant’s oil on it. Sometimes, you can still prevent a rash by following these instructions within 10 to 20 minutes of touching the plant or its oil. If an hour or so has passed and your skin doesn’t itch, it still may be helpful to follow these steps. Doing so may reduce the severity of the rash you get.

For more information or to request an appointment, please contact Dr. Patrick McDaid, M.D. at

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