Each year, 25 million to 40 million Americans suffer severe itchiness caused by an allergic reaction to the oil in poison ivy. The itchy rash appears one to two days after contact and can last from 10 days to three weeks.

"The reaction usually starts with redness and swelling of the skin, which is then followed by either bumps or blisters," said Dr. Lisa Hammer, a pediatrician at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital.

Poison Ivy Tips

Dr. Hammer offers some tips on how to avoid poison ivy and treatments to use if you do have a brush with it…

  • "If you come into contact with poison ivy, the best advice is to wash your skin as quickly as possible," Hammer said. Don't scrub too hard or use hot water because that may irritate the skin or open pores too much and make it easier for the poison ivy oil to be absorbed into the skin.
  • Wash the clothing and shoes you were wearing when you came into contact with poison ivy.
  • Give your dog a bath in order to remove poison ivy oil and wash garden tools and other items that may have come into contact with poison ivy. "Oil can stay on these types of (tool/implement) surfaces for up to five years," Hammer said.
  • Poison ivy oil on your skin can be transferred to other people, but fluid from sores caused by poison ivy is not contagious.
  • Cool baths, cool compresses, or massaging the affected area with an ice cube can help relieve itchiness. Allow the area to air dry, which will reduce itching and oozing of blisters.
  • Oral and topical antihistamines can help reduce itchiness.

When To See Your Doctor

Most cases of poison ivy can be managed at home, but you should seek medical attention if you have a severe reaction.

According to Dr. Hammer, "If individuals are experiencing a more severe poison ivy reaction, specifically involving the face or genital area, or there's a significant swelling pain or irritation that disrupts their sleep or daily activities, they should seek additional help from their health care providers," who can prescribe oral steroids or steroid creams to reduce itching, pain and discomfort.

Forewarned Is Forearmed

Allergy alerts and pollen counts are available anytime at the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology's free Web site, www.aaaai.org (click on "Pollen Counts"). Click on your region for a list of all national allergy bureau locations, where measurements of pollen and mold are taken.

Helpful: Sign up for a free account at the site to view each pollen count in detail.

Example: If you are allergic to pollen from oak trees but not maple trees, you can find out which specific type of tree has a high count each day.

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