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Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

Treating a poison ivy rash

STILLWATER, Okla. – There are too many old wives’ tales to count about how to get rid of poison ivy. Some of the more dangerous include using bleach, or even gasoline, to try and dry up any rashes caused by the plant.

According to Dr. Aaron Lane D.O., clinical associate professor of emergency medicine at Oklahoma State University Medicine in Tulsa, an oatmeal bath may help, but that is about it.

“There aren’t any shortcuts when it gets bad,” he said. “It’s going to miserable for a while.”

The first step to avoiding the burning rash associated with poison ivy is to be able to identify it, and leave it alone. While that is easier said than done, there is a window of opportunity to not get a rash even if someone comes in contact with it.

“If you get the oil from the plant on you and wash it off in time, you won’t get the rash,” Lane said. “It’s not a typical wash though. You need to use a lot of soap and water and really scrub to remove all of the oil.”

If someone happens to miss a spot of oil, or comes into contact with the oil from some clothes, shoelaces or pets, a rash may appear.

“If the rash isn’t very bad and you just have a little spot, the treatment is topical hydrocortisone cream, which you can get over the counter,” Lane said. “You could also take Benadryl for the itching.”

For more significant rashes, a trip to the doctor’s office will be required to get a two-week treatment of steroids.

“People always want a shot, but the effectiveness of steroids are the same whether you get a shot, an IV or take them orally,” said Lane. “Patients believe the oral steroids prescribed are not working, but when they return for the shot, it works. It’s not because the injection works better than the pills, but the injection typically is a much higher dose than the patient was initially given”

The route of administration of the steroids makes no difference; it is strictly the strength of the medication. Rather than just asking for a shot, Lane suggests making sure you are prescribed an adequate dosage and duration of therapy of the steroid.

“We typically give a high dose of the steroid for the first few days and then taper it back to where the last few days are a very small dose,” he said.

Whether someone has just a couple small dots, or a full-blown, body covering rash, the area should be left alone. Scratching will irritate and break the skin, which will increase blood flow to the area and bring more histamine.

The good news is the rash will not spread simply by scratching it.

“Poison ivy can’t spread in your blood,” Lane said. “You can spread it by scratching an area that has the oil and then touching somewhere else. We always have people cut their fingernails to get rid of any oil that may be trapped under there.”


Sean Hubbard
Communications Specialist
Agricultural Communications Services
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK 74078
Phone: 405-744-4490
Fax: 405-744-5739

Oklahoma State University - Stillwater, OK 74078