Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy (Spring) Poison Ivy (Fall)
Poison Oak

Poison Ivy and Poison Oak both produce a highly toxic, thick, invisible resin that can cause severe skin irritation. If you've ever eaten biscuits and honey, you know how you can sometimes end up with sticky spots in unexpected places. Poison ivy toxin (urushiol) gets spread around in the same way.  Anywhere you touch may become "contaminated" including your arms, face, eyelids, even genitalia.  You can also be exposed by:

  • Breathing smoke from burning poison ivy plants
  • Weed-whacking poison ivy
  • Touching the cut stems or vines of poison ivy
  • Picking up piles of cut weeds that contain poison ivy

The signs of skin irritation often appear incrementally, first on the more sensitive areas of skin (face, genitalia), and where the heaviest concentrations of toxin were deposited, and later in other areas where skin is thicker (legs, arms). This is not because the poison ivy/oak is "spreading".

A popular misconception is that poison ivy is spread by contact with the fluid from the blisters, but that is incorrect.  The reason poison ivy eruptions seem to appear in crops over several days is that some areas of skin were more severely exposed than others; and those are the areas that erupt first, followed sometimes days later by eruptions in areas that were only lightly exposed to the toxin.
In addition to the local damaging effects of the urushiol, some people may actually develop an allergy to the toxin (the same way they might become allergic to strawberries or shellfish), and they can develop a secondary allergic rash over large areas of their body, even on areas which were never even exposed directly to the poison ivy.


  1. Prior to clearing brush, wear long pants, long sleeves, socks, shoes, and disposable gloves. Avoid touching any uncovered parts of your body with your hands.
  2. As soon as you can, go into your laundry room and strip off all clothes including your underwear, put everything, including shoes, into the washer. Add soap, and start the cycle. Then...
  3. Take a hot shower with soap and water. This will remove any remaining toxin from the surface of your skin and prevent any further exposure.


  • Don't make the mistake of removing your clothes in the bathroom, taking a shower, and then handling your clothes again. This would re-contaminate your skin with the toxin, and it would remain there for the next 24 hours, causing more irritation until your next shower.
  • Be aware that pets can pick up the toxin on their fur if they run through poison ivy. You might want to consider a bath for them as well.


  1. The first thing to try is an over-the-counter medication called Zanfel, a topical treatment that removes urushiol from the upper skin layer. Most patients experience relief within 30 seconds of application, and the rash will begin to subside within hours. (See the Zanfel website for more information).  (Certain solvents can also remove the resin- from your belt, shoes, tools, etc.)
  2. If you do not experience significant relief within an hour or two, call our office immediately because there are a variety of treatments we can use to minimize the itching and spread of the eruptions. Don't wait to see "how bad it's going to get" before calling.  The longer the rash remains untreated, the longer the expected recovery time.