Every year, more than 10 million unlucky Americans suffer the itching, swelling and blistering that poison ivy leaves in its wake. This seemingly harmless plant's oil can travel through the air, be transferred through clothing and can even attack days after you've been outside. It's a tricky little plant that causes pain to nearly everyone in its path.
You don't have to be a victim. Follow these simple steps to prevent and treat poison ivy before its oil does its damage:
Recognize poison ivy. The easiest way to steer clear of poison ivy is to know what to avoid. It grows on vines or low shrubs and its leaves contain three smaller leaflets. The middle leaf is always longer than the outer two. In the spring, the poison ivy develops green-yellow flowers, and in the fall, its leaves can turn red or yellow. Check out pictures of poison ivy at poison-ivy.org before going outdoors.
Know your enemy. Poison ivy contains urushiol, an allergen that produces an itchy rash. But the first time you come in contact with urushiol, an allergic reaction rarely occurs, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Sensitivity to urushiol develops with repeated exposure, and 85 percent of people will develop an allergic reaction.
Apply lotion. If you think wearing long sleeves, pants and gloves will keep the poison ivy away, think again, said Dr. Joseph Fowler Jr., dermatologist and clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Louisville. The oil from the ivy can stick to your clothing and will get on your hands when you undress. Prevent the oil from binding to your skin by applying a lotion containing bentoquatam such as Ivy Block ($12 at amazon.com) to your entire body at least 15 minutes before going outside.
Stock alcohol. Bring a bottle of rubbing alcohol outside. If you happen to walk into poison ivy and haven't applied bentoquatam, apply the rubbing alcohol to any exposed skin. "The rubbing alcohol neutralizes the oil and can work for up to several hours after exposure," said Susan Carol Hauser, author of "Field Guide to Poison Ivy, Poison Oak and Poison Sumac."
Clean your tools. Once poison ivy touches your clothing and your gardening tools, it can stay there for days, Fowler said. Make sure you use gloves to handle anything that has been near the ivy, and wash it with soap and water immediately. Put clothing directly into the washing machine. If it touches the floor, the urushiol can be transferred to the ground, which will move onto your feet when you walk.
Wash quickly. The urushiol from poison ivy will bind to your skin within 10 minutes of contact. But if you clean the affected area with rubbing alcohol, and wash it with water, you can get rid of the oil, said Dr. Ranella Hirsch, clinical assistant professor at Boston University's School of Medicine, and past president of the American Society of Cosmetic Dermatology and Aesthetic Surgery. Make sure you're not washing the area with soap, however. "Soap is not recommended because it can spread the oil around your body and worsen the eventual rash," Hirsch said.
Avoid campfires. If you must have some s'mores this summer, make sure your campfire isn't anywhere close to poison ivy. Its urushiol can be carried in smoke and soot — so even if you're not touching the poison ivy, it can reach you, Hauser said.
Treatment. Most allergic reactions from poison ivy don't occur until 12 to 48 hours after coming in contact with the plant. Mild cases of the rash can be treated with cool showers and any over-the-counter itch-relief products, such as calamine lotion or creams containing hydrocortisone such as Cortaid Maximum Strength ($4 at Cortaid.com), Hauser said. If you have a rash covering more than a quarter of your body — or on sensitive spots such as your eyes and ears — you should see a dermatologist or go to the emergency room as soon as possible.