Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy

Description, Causes and Risk Factors:

Common name for the cutaneous eruption (rhus dermatitis) caused by contact with these species of Toxicodendron (A genus of poisonous plants (family Anacardiaceae), also known as Rhus, with smooth fruits and foliage that contain urushiol, which produces a contact dermatitis).

Alternative Name: Poison oak, poison sumac.

Poison ivy is the major cause of allergenic dermatitis in the eastern United States. All parts of the plant contain resinous compounds, known as urushiols, which cause inflammation of the skin, blistering, and itching.

Poison ivy is a perennial plant and can be found in different forms. It may grow as a low, spreading shrub with fine stems. It may also grow as an upright, three foot tall shrub, or it may grow as a woody vine. Vines attach to tree trunks by way of aerial roots that make the vine look like a fuzzy rope.

The “poison” in poison ivy is an oil called urushiol. Found in resin ducts in all parts of the plant, urushiol is released whenever the plant is crushed or bruised. When the oil contacts skin, it can cause an allergic reaction, ranging from reddening and swelling, to blistering or open sores. Reactions will vary depending upon the sensitivity of the individual to urushiol.

Contrary to popular belief, the rash caused by poison ivy, is not spread by contact with open sores. However, the tacky oil is persistent and can be spread indirectly by contact with pets, garden tools, garden gloves, shoes, golf balls, or any other object that has come in contact with a bruised poison ivy plant.

Furthermore, the oil persists in dormant and dead plants. Poison ivy should never be burned since the smoke can carry the oil and cause problems to anyone inhaling the smoke.

Wood cutters using a chain saw to cut logs with attached poison ivy vines have been known to suffer serious allergic reactions when inhaling urushiol that was volatilized during the cutting process. After contacting poison ivy, the affected area of skin should be washed immediately with soap and cool water - warm water may hasten skin penetration of the oil.


General Symptoms may include:


  • Burning skin.

  • Itching.

  • Redness of the skin.

  • Swelling.

At first, the skin that has touched the plant or the urushiol becomes red, and then bumps andblisters appear. This is usually accompanied by itching and sometimes by swelling. Afterreaching their peak in several days, the blisters break and the oozing sores begin to crustover and disappear. The rash rarely occurs on the scalp, palms of the hands, or soles of thefeet because the outer skin there is very tough, and it is difficult for the plant oil to penetrate.Scratching the rash may introduce bacteria into the open sores, causing a secondarybacterial infection. Severe infections may produce symptoms such as abscesses, enlargedglands, and fever.


The first step in diagnosing the cause of allergic contact dermatitis is to obtain a medicalhistory. The doctor will ask questions about the patient's activities and environment beforethe rash appeared, chemicals used in work or hobby activities, medications or cosmeticsapplied, and other exposures that might serve as clues to the cause.

The history as well as the typical appearance and location of the rash are often sufficient toimplicate one of the Toxicodendron plants as the cause of the dermatitis. When a doctorneeds to confirm suspicions of an allergy, a patch test can be performed. Because thematerial used in the patch test itself may sensitize patients to urushiol, the test should beused only when necessary for diagnosis—not as a routine procedure. In any case, the testshould not be done until all active sores have healed because testing can aggravate thecondition further.


If you come in contact with the plant, wash the oil from your skin with cold water within 20 minutes of exposure. Try over-the-counter anti-itch products for minor itching or swelling or check with your pharmacist.

A person should see a physician if the rash is severe, is on the face or genitals, or covers more than 20 percent of the body. The physician may prescribe medicines to reduce itching and inflammation. These may include antihistamines to be taken by mouth and corticosteroid lotions and creams to be applied to the skin. The doctor may prescribe oral corticosteroids in severe cases but also in some moderate ones.


    Learn to recognize poison ivy and avoid exposure.

  • Always wear vinyl gloves when removing plants (urushiol can penetrate rubber).

  • Wear long pants, long sleeves, socks, closed shoes, hat when walking in areas with poison ivy.

  • Do not burn poison ivy.

NOTE: The above information is educational purpose. The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition.

DISCLAIMER: This information should not substitute for seeking responsible, professional medical care.


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