According to the American Academy of Dermatology, “A rash from poison oak, ivy, or sumac usually lasts one to three weeks. Most rashes will go away without treatment.” While your rash may heal on its own, it’s still likely to be itchy and uncomfortable during the process — sometimes even severely, depending on how allergic you are to the plant’s oils. This is where treatments for a poison oak rash can really be helpful — such as applying ointment, essential oils or a soothing compress. These remedies can help speed up the skin’s healing process and reduce rash symptoms like redness, swelling and itchiness, in addition to lowering the potential for developing an infection.

How to Spot Poison Oak and Poison Ivy:

In many cases you can identify both poison ivy and poison oak (which look similar) by sight because they grow on branches in a specific pattern in groupings of three leaflets (conjoined leaves). Here are some signs to look for when determining if a plant is poison oak or ivy:

  • Many types of plants have a group of three leaves at the top of their branches only. But poison oak and poison ivy have groups of three leaves all the way down the branches as well. In other words, one way to distinguish between poison oak/ivy and other non-harmless plants is to check how the leaves grow up the length of the plant’s branches. If single leaves grow all the way up the branch, then the plant is not poison oak or ivy.
  • The plant’s leaflets are green. They can be anywhere from dull to very bright. They tend to be “reddish in the spring, green in the summer and yellow, orange or red in the fall.”
  • Poison oak and poison ivy grow in an alternate leaf pattern. This means that along the plant’s branches no leaf stem is directly across from another leaf them. Instead the stems alternate (one a bit higher than the next).
  • Sometimes the plants produces tiny, white flowers that hang in clusters. These may or may not be fragrant, and may also produce light green, white or black pitted little “fruits” that are about the size of a green pea.
  • Poison oak and ivy grow almost straight up. But, they typically don’t wrap themselves around trees or other objects.

Signs of a Poison Oak Rash

Urushiol is found in all parts of the plant, including the leaves, stems and roots. It can even survive for a brief period of time after the plant has died. A rash often does not start developing and itching until about 12 to 72 hours after you come into contact with the oil.

After coming into contact with poison oak, it’s estimated that you have up to ten minutes to remove the allergenic oil before it starts to signal the immune system cause a reaction. If you are someone who is very sensitive to these “poisonous” plants, you have even less time to remove the oil from your skin — only around 2–3 minutes. Regardless of how allergic to poison oak or ivy you are, the longer you wait to wash the oil off of your skin or remove any contact with objects that have touched the plant, the more oil will be absorbed into your skin and the worse the rash will likely become.

  • A rash that appears red or like red hives/”streaks,” which can develop anywhere on the body.
  • Itchiness or tingling.
  • Heat and swelling around the rash.
  • The development of small or large blisters, often forming red streaks or lines.
  • The skin will ooze and a crust will form. This usually happens around blisters and goes away as they heal.
  • For some people with a severe rash that forms blisters, a skin infection can possibly develop. Signs of an infection include developing a fever or having pus, pain, swelling and warmth around the site of the rash.

How Poison Oak Affects You

  1. Poison oak causes an allergic reaction when the plant’s resins, specifically the allergic oil called urushiol, comes into contact with the epidermis layer of the skin. This is the protective barrier that is mainly located on the skin’s surface.
  2. The epidermis is made up of lipids, sweat, water and sebum (formed from triglycerides and cholesterol). Urushiol can easily penetrate the skin’s barrier. Then it begins to cause changes to deeper layers of the skin, including the area surrounding cells (specifically the intercellular matrix) and the follicles (also called the pores).
  3. Once urushiol comes into contact with the sebaceous glands, especially if the skin is exposed to heat, follicles expand and cause the oil to spread. Cells called Langerhans cells can alert other cells and the immune system that a foreign substance has entered the skin and may be a threat.
  4. The immune system gets the signal that unwelcome antigens (from the poisonous plant) are passing through the skin. This triggers an inflammatory response that causes a rash, itching, pain and swelling.

Prevent a Rash By Protecting Your Skin

If you’re outside and at risk for exposing your skin to any of these poisonous plants, you can take precautions to prevent a reaction by covering your skin well. You can use several types of widely available creams, soaps and lotions to help lower your risk for developing symptoms. They work by forming a protective barrier or by removing the oil if you do come into contact with the plant. One product called Ivy Block, a topical lotion that contains the ingredient called bentoquatam, may block absorption of urushiol oil.

In addition to applying a barrier to your skin, it’s always a good idea to also use protective gloves before working outside with your hands. Or, cover other parts of your skin if hiking, camping, walking on trails outdoors, etc. But remember that oil can linger on unwashed gloves or other equipment for weeks. Always wash them thoroughly afterward (ideally right away) with soap and water (or bleach). Regular hand soap, laundry detergent and body wash/soap work well enough for most people.

If you suspect that urushiol has made its way onto your skin or clothes, wash your skin immediately along with anything you were wearing or using. You can take immediate steps to lower the odds of a rash spreading by showering in warm water and washing the clothes you were wearing.

Leave The Rash Alone

If a rash begins to form, or you notice symptoms like tingling, redness and itching, resist the temptation to pick or scratch. This can make the rash even worse and cause scratches or open cuts, which may become infected. Leave the rash alone as much as possible while it heals. Only gently touch the affected area to cleanse it with lukewarm water and mild soap, or when applying ointment or a compress. Do not open up blisters or remove their crusty coating, since this actually helps with the healing process.

Cold Compresses & Oatmeal Baths

To help reduce swelling and heat, you can try soaking in a lukewarm bath with oatmeal or Epsom salt. Another option is applying a damp towel to your skin. Gently wrap the damp towel around ice.  Then gently press it against inflamed skin for 15–20 minutes at a time. You can apply a compress up to several times a day if needed. Taking a cold shower may also help.

Apply Ointment or Cream

After gently washing the affected skin, apply calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream/lotion to reduce itchiness and oozing. You can apply most of these creams in liberal amounts about 2–4 times daily. And, they are safe in most cases for children too.

Apply Essential Oils

Topically applying certain essential oils for allergies may improve healing by lowering inflammation of the skin and preventing an infection from forming. In addition, once the rash begins to crust and heal, moisturizing products like aloe vera, Shea better and coconut oil can further help soothe itchiness. Essential oils to try applying to the rash include:

  • Tea tree
  • Chamomile
  • Geranium
  • Rose
  • Helichrysum
  • Lavender

To treat the rash, add three drops of your chosen oil (or a combination) to a compress. Apply to the area up to three times daily. You can make a homemade anti-itch cream using several ingredients like witch hazel, calendula, apple cider vinegar, coconut oil and bentonite clay to dry the skin and help with healing. Bentonite clay is used in many natural creams works to dry up blisters, reduce swelling and possibly help to prevent infections. The other ingredients help protect the skin’s natural moisture barrier and reduce growth of bacteria. Apply a small amount of the anti-itch treatment to your skin until it dries and forms flakes. Then gently rinse with water.

Severe Poison Oak Rash

Although a poison oak, ivy or sumac rash will likely go away on its own within several weeks (or even less), sometimes a severe rash can cause complications. Visit your doctor, or even the emergency room, right away if you notice the following symptoms, which can be a sign of a severe allergic reaction or infection that’s spreading:

  • Very swollen eyes or patches on your face.
  • Swollen mouth, tongue or difficulty swallowing.
  • Trouble breathing normally.
  • Your rash has spread to the point of covering most of your body.
  • Very swollen, oozing blisters.
  • The rash has spread to your genitals and is causing pain.
  • Most of your skin itches, or nothing seems to ease the itch.

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