Skin inflamed by poison ivy

Poison Ivy

Poison ivy is a weed best known for causing skin irritation. In extreme cases, it can cause life-threatening allergic reactions.

Irritation usually resolves on its own, but may require prescription medication or more serious intervention.

What happens during a reaction?

Skin inflamed by poison ivy


Itching, Redness, Swelling, and Blisters

Poison ivy causes persistent itching and visible irritation. Eventually, blisters will begin to ooze, but this does not contribute to the spread of irritation.

Difficulty Breathing

People sometimes destroy poison ivy by burning it. This method of control is discouraged because inhaling the smoke can cause respiratory issues.

Severe Allergic Reaction

Extreme exposure or sensitivity can result in an allergic reaction requiring emergency care. Anaphylaxis can be characterized by severe swelling, shortness of breath, a drop in blood pressure, and a racing pulse.
Where does poison ivy grow?

A Common Plant in North America

Poison ivy grows in most of the continental United States. It has two close cousins: poison oak and poison sumac. Poison oak grows along the West Coast and in the Southeast, including Texas. Poison sumac is mainly found in swamps of the Southeast.

All three plants produce urushiol, the sticky oil (which is not actually poisonous) that causes reactions. Due to control efforts, these plants are much less likely to be found in public places or near homes. 

How does a harmless-looking plant cause so much trouble?

How Poison Ivy Reactions Occur


Direct Contact with Poison Ivy

Urushiol can be transferred through contact with any part of a poison ivy plant. It cannot be transferred through contact with an active lesion on yourself or another person.

Indirect Contact

Urushiol remains active years after it is deposited on a surface. A pet that is allowed outdoors could carry urushiol on its fur. Strong winds can also carry urushiol and affect those who are very sensitive.

How common are cases of poison ivy?

Poison ivy infographic

About 85 percent of the population is allergic to these plants. Ten to 15 percent are considered extremely allergic.

*According to the American Skin Association

Avoiding Poison Ivy Reactions

Know Your "Poison" Plants

By learning the physical characteristics of plants that produce urushiol, you can avoid physical contact or airborne exposure. An easy rhyme to help you remember: "Leaves of three, let it be."

Dress Appropriately

If you plan to visit an outdoor environment that is not landscaped, such as a trail or campsite, reduce your risk of exposure by wearing long pants and sleeves.

Be Prepared

If you are extremely allergic to poison ivy, you should carry an epinephrine auto-injector (such as an EpiPen®), which can provide relief until you can receive urgent treatment.

I think I may be having a poison ivy reaction...

Identifying the Cause of Irritation

Skin irritation usually occurs 12 to 72 hours after exposure. It will often begin as red streaks tracing the way in which the plant contacted your skin. Eventually, itching and blistering will follow. A doctor will be able to easily determine whether poison ivy is the cause.

How is poison ivy treated?

Finding Relief: Bathing and Medications

031 - BathCreated with Sketch.

Clean Your Skin

If you think you have touched poison ivy, cleaning the area with an alcohol wipe and taking a thorough bath within an hour of exposure can minimize irritation.

OTC Medications

You can minimize itching and inflammation by using over-the-counter lotions, allergy medication, or a cold compress.

Prescription Medications

For more pronounced symptoms, your doctor can prescribe injections, oral meds, and topical treatments containing steroids.
Should I be worried?

Seek Immediate Medical Care If You:

Have symptoms of anaphylaxis, such as pronounced swelling and breathing problems
Experience irritation on your genitals or eyes
Experience irritation on more than 25 percent of your body
Still experience irritation after seven to 10 days
I hope to NEVER have a poison ivy reaction...

Get Educated and Prepared

Poison ivy is not always serious, but it is never pleasant. When enjoying the outdoors, know how to identify these plants and take simple precautions to avoid a reaction. If you have recently ventured into greener, unkempt pastures and are beginning to feel an itch, stay mindful and see a doctor if you have any concerns.

Stephen P. Hardy, M.D.

Stephen P. Hardy, M.D.

Dr. Stephen P. Hardy is a renowned plastic surgeon with prestigious national affiliations:

  • American Board of Plastic Surgery (ABPS)
  • American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS)
  • American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association (ACPA)

To schedule your consultation, contact us online or call us at (406) 728-3811.

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