3 Tips for Poison Ivy and Other Rashes

Get the truth about the three-leafed scoundrel. Learn how it spreads and how to make it better.

Rob Lamberts, MD
5-minute read
Episode #7

Why Do Some People Get Poison Ivy Rashes but Others Don’t?

You may have noticed that some people could wear underwear made of poison ivy without developing an itch, whereas others get a rash whenever someone says the words “poison ivy.” That is because of it being an allergic reaction. Some people are much more allergic than others. Those in the latter group should become experts on what these plants look like. I’ll put a link to pictures of them in the show notes.

How Do You Treat Poison Ivy Rashes?

It's a myth that you can get poison ivy from touching the rash on someone else; don't believe it.

The rash from poison ivy can last for several weeks if left untreated, so I do recommend treating it once it comes up. For mild cases, simply putting over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream on it will help it go away. Calamine or Caladryl creams are often used, but they are not as effective as cortisone at getting rid of the rash (although they’re great for people who like pink spots on their skin). Oral diphenhydramine (also known as Benadryl) will help with the itch and allow sleep.

If the rash is widespread or it has spread to the face, treatment with an oral steroid like prednisone may be needed. That is generally safe in children and adults if used for short periods, although it can make people act goofy and retain fluid. Like any medication, prednisone should only be used when the benefit outweighs the risk. The biggest benefit to treating poison ivy is sanity.

Quick and Dirty Tips for Poison Ivy

Here are my quick and dirty tips on dealing with contact dermatitis:

Tip 1: If You Get Contact Dermatitis, Wash Everything. - Towels, sheets, and pillowcases are the biggest culprits of spreading the oil. If your rash is spreading, you are being exposed to the oil somehow. Remember that the rash does not spread by scratching it (although it can get infected by scratching too much).

So Wait…does that mean that you can’t get poison ivy from touching the rash on someone else? Yes, that’s exactly what it means. It’s not true. It’s a myth spread by the CIA in the 50’s. Don’t believe it.

Tip 2: For Mild Rashes, use Hydrocortisone - Other treatments might help with the itch, but steroid creams will treat the allergic reaction itself.

Tip 3: See your doctor for bad rashes, or ones that you aren’t sure about. – Rashes to the face or rashes that are widespread may need oral steroids to get better.  Also, be aware that other rashes, such as shingles and even herpes, can sometimes look like contact dermatitis. Again, if you are not sure, see your doctor.

For more on allergies, check out my episodes on seasonal allergies and anaphylaxis (otherwise known as a serious, life-threatening allergic reaction).

Remember, this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide you with medical advice or recommendations for treatment.  My goal is to add to your medical knowledge and translate some of the weird medical stuff you hear, so when you do go to your doctor, your visits will be more fruitful.  I don’t intend to replace your doctor; he or she is the one you should always consult about your own medical condition.

That’s it for today.

If you have questions you want answered, send them to housecalldoctor@quickanddirtytips.com.

Catch you next time! Stay healthy!

Rash image courtesy of Shutterstock


Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.