When to Contact a Doctor for Poison Ivy

Medically Reviewed By Debra Rose Wilson, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT
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A poison ivy rash is a reaction to the oils from the poison ivy plant. The rash is often treatable at home, but in some cases, you may need to contact a doctor. Poison ivy is one of the most common toxic plants in the United States. The plant produces urushiol, which is an oily coating or sap that can cause a flushed, itchy rash and blisters when it comes into contact with your skin. You can find poison ivy in all kinds of terrain in the city and the country. It is present in most areas in the U.S.

The plant is easily identifiable with its distinctive pattern of three leaves on the stem. This is why children are often told, “Leaves of three, let them be!”

Poison ivy is in the same family as poison oak and poison sumac.

This article discusses the causes of a poison ivy rash, when to contact a doctor, and how to treat the rash.

What causes a poison ivy rash?

Young male child with poison ivy rash
Sarah Lalone/Stocksy United

Most often, you get a poison ivy rash by coming into direct contact with the plant. For example, you might brush against it while walking through some bushes, and the urushiol transfers to your leg. Or you can touch the plant, then touch other parts of your body and spread the oil that way.

The rash and the fluids in the blisters that poison ivy causes are not contagious. However, any oils left on objects — such as doorknobs and clothing — can spread to others through contact.

Pets can transfer urushiol on their fur as well. It is also possible to experience the effects of poison ivy if it is burned, as the oil is carried in the smoke.

The rash that poison ivy causes is called contact dermatitis. It can occur as soon as 4 hours after you come into contact with the sap or up to 10 days later.

Read more about skin, hair, and nails in our hub.

When should you contact a doctor for a poison ivy rash?

For the most part, a poison ivy rash is treatable at home. However, there are some situations when you may need to seek medical help.

Most people have some reaction to poison ivy, but some people are more allergic to the oil, which makes their reactions more severe.

If you experience any of these symptoms, go to an emergency department right away:

  • difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • a rash around your eyes, mouth, or genitals
  • swelling in your face, especially your eyes
  • itching that gets worse or makes it difficult to sleep
  • a rash that covers most of your body
  • fever

These are all symptoms of a severe reaction that needs prompt treatment.

Even if you are not highly allergic to poison ivy, you may need to contact a doctor if you have a rash that does not go away within 7–10 days with home treatment or gets worse. You may also want to contact your doctor if this is your first time experiencing a poison ivy rash.

If you have a poison ivy rash or blisters, scratching can cause breaks in the skin that can become infected. If you develop any symptoms of an infection, you should contact a doctor as soon as possible.

These symptoms may include:

  • pus or discharge from the skin
  • an odor coming from the fluid in the blisters
  • increasing flushing of the skin around the wound
  • increasing pain around the wound
  • fever
  • fatigue and a general feeling of being unwell

Read more about when to contact a doctor for a rash.

How can you treat a poison ivy rash at home?

Poison ivy symptoms are most often treatable at home.

The most important action is to thoroughly wash the affected area with soap and water as quickly as possible. Also, make sure that your hands, including the areas under your nails, are cleaned. This will prevent the oil from spreading and contaminating other parts of your body.

Pat your skin dry gently. Do not rub, as this can irritate the skin. Wash your clothing and any tools or equipment you handled that may have come into contact with the plant.

Once you have cleaned your skin, you may find relief from the itching by trying these remedies.

  • Cold compresses: Soak a clean washcloth with cold water and wring it as dry as possible. Place the cloth on the rash for about 15–30 minutes. You can repeat this several times per day.
  • Oatmeal baths: Add oatmeal or oatmeal bath treatment to a running bath and soak in the tub.
  • Topical lotions and creams: Certain over-the-counter (OTC) products, such as calamine lotion and hydrocortisone creams, can help reduce itching and swelling. Follow the instructions on the packaging.
  • OTC antihistamine medications: OTC medications such as Benadryl can help manage the symptoms of the reaction. Follow the instructions on the packaging.

Other frequently asked questions

These are some more questions that people have asked about poison ivy.

What does a poison ivy rash look like?

Typically, a rash from poison ivy appears in the form of flushed, itchy bumps on your skin. Most people also experience blistering in the rash areas.

In rare cases, people experience black spots or streaks on their skin instead of the typical rash. This is known as black spot poison ivy dermatitis.

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This image shows a poison ivy rash on the torso.

Joy Brown/Shutterstock

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This image shows an arm with a poison ivy rash.

Nick Tropiano/Shutterstock

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Severe reactions to poison ivy can cause skin blisters, as seen here.

Michael Moloney/Shutterstock

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Black spot poison ivy is a more rare presentation of the condition. It can often be difficult to diagnose as there is no swelling or redness present.

Chastant, L. R., Davis, T., & Libow, L. (2018). Black-spot poison ivy, a report of 3 cases with clinicopathologic correlation. JAAD case reports, 4(2), 140–142. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jdcr.2017.09.035

How long does it take for poison ivy to stop spreading?

Poison ivy only spreads via the oils from the plant. It can only spread to other people or other parts of your body while the oils are still on your skin, on your clothing, or on surfaces.

If you have come into contact with poison ivy, you should thoroughly wash any exposed skin and your clothing right away. You should also clean and disinfect any surfaces you may have touched while the oils were still on your skin.

Does Benadryl help with a poison ivy rash?

Antihistamines such as Benadryl can help with the itching that occurs due to poison ivy.

If you take Benadryl or another antihistamine, you should always follow the directions on the packaging.

Should you pop poison ivy blisters?

No. You should avoid scratching your rash, as this can lead to infection.

You should also leave the blisters alone. If they open, do not remove the layer of skin over them. This layer protects the raw wound underneath it and helps prevent infections.

Summary

A poison ivy rash is a reaction to contact with the oils of the poison ivy plant. Anyone can react to contact with the plant, and some people have worse reactions than others.

Most rashes that develop due to the poison ivy plant are treatable at home.

However, you should contact your doctor if the rash does not go away with at-home treatment, if the rash gets worse, or if it is your first time experiencing a poison ivy rash. You should also seek medical care if you experience symptoms of a severe reaction or an infection.

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Medical Reviewer: Debra Rose Wilson, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT
Last Review Date: 2022 May 30
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