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Health Education

Avoid a Playdate with Poison Ivy

Cropped SingleCare logo By | September 18, 2015

Summer and fall are great times to get out and play, but poison ivy can ruin anyone’s day.

Nothing can put a damper on a beautiful, sunny day outside, whether it’s in the park or in the mountains — nothing, that is, except for poison ivy. Accidental contact with the plant results in an uncomfortable rash and will bring even the perfect outing to an itchy halt.

The best defense, besides long sleeves, is knowledge. Here are some tips to help identify poison ivy, and to treat yourself if you ever have the misfortune of rubbing elbows with this pest of a plant.

Identify Poison Ivy

Poison ivy grows all over the United States and is particularly prevalent east of the Mississippi River. In fact, the plant is so widespread that it even has its own website. According to Medicine Net, the plant “grows in open fields, wooded areas, on the roadside, and along riverbanks. It can also be found in urban areas, such as parks or backyards.”

In other words, it’s pretty much everywhere. While different varieties can be found in different regions of the U.S., there are some characteristics common to all species.

Typically, the plant is a vine or a shrub, with pointed leaves that always grow in clusters of three — a good quote to remember is, “Leaves of three, let them be.” If you follow these clusters along the stem of the plant from the base out, you will notice that they grow on the left first, then the right, but never side by side.

The leaves are also never saw-toothed or scalloped, and there will be no sign of thorns anywhere on the plant.

Why the Itch?

Although most people know that poison ivy causes an itchy rash, it’s actually not the plant itself that induces the reaction. The plant actually produces an oily resin called urushiol that is found on the leaves, stems, flowers, and roots.

Even in the winter, when poison ivy is nothing but a bare vine, the resin is still present and can cause that familiar, uncomfortable itch. Even if the shrub is dead, the urushiol lives on to irritate your skin!

Not only can you develop a rash from direct contact with poison ivy, you can also experience a reaction if you happen to touch anything that rubbed the plant, including your dog, tools, and clothing. Interestingly, if you’ve never before been exposed to urushiol, you may not develop a rash within the first week, if at all.

The more often you’re exposed, the more likely you are to see a reaction.

If you’re really lucky, you’re one of the 15% of humans who are immune to poison ivy. If not, the rash will usually form in the first 12-72 hours, manifesting as a swollen, red, and sometimes blister-ridden irritation.


If you know that you’ve just come in contact with poison ivy, the best thing to do is wash the area with warm water and dish soap or rubbing alcohol. The longer you wait to rinse, the more likely it is that a rash will break out. Also, be sure to scrub under your fingernails and wash the clothes you were wearing when you came in contact with the plant.

If and when the rash does develop, apply a cool washcloth or compress. Avoid scratching as much as possible, as this could spread the rash and make the itching worse. Topical treatments such as calamine lotion are also effective, but WebMD urges you not to use antihistamines or ointments that contain benzocaine or neomycin (brand names: Lanacane and Neosporin, respectively).

Should the rash cover a large portion of your body or reveal itself to be particularly severe, you should pay a visit to your doctor.

And if you’re concerned about a rash but don’t think your insurance will cover an unexpected visit to the doctor, you can rely on SingleCare. Simply find a doctor, make an appointment, and pay only for the services you use. Whether you’re suffering from a poison ivy rash or something more serious, SingleCare is the affordable solution to healthcare coverage you need.

(Main image credit: carterse/flickr)