Poison ivy – a summer hazard you want to avoid

Jul 15, 2014 / Geriatrics / Seniors

During the nice summer weather, most seniors like to get outside and enjoy the great outdoors. Although we hear a lot in the news about bears and great white sharks, there’s one summer danger we are much more likely to encounter outside – poison ivy.

The itchy, blistering rash of poison ivy (and its cousins poison oak and poison sumac) can really make life miserable. Unfortunately, poison ivy can be encountered anywhere from a walking trail to your own backyard. The more you know about poison ivy, the easier you’ll be able to avoid it or deal with its consequences.

Leaves of three, let them be!

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) always has three shiny leaves and a red stem. It usually grows in the form of a vine, but can also be bush-like in appearance. The plant produces a resin called urushiol that causes the irritating skin reaction.

After coming into contact with poison ivy, always deal with it as quickly as possible. Wash your hands and other parts of your body that may have touched the plant with soap and water. This can help reduce the reaction. Any clothing, shoes or gear that may have been in contact with the plant should also be washed carefully. Even a pet’s fur can spread poison ivy, so be sure they receive a cleaning too.

Rash first, then blisters

Symptoms from poison ivy can appear anywhere from four hours to four days after you’ve been exposed. After the rash appears, you’ll develop fluid-filled blisters on your skin. The blisters can take a while to appear. If the fluid in the blisters leaks, it won’t spread the rash. However, you should be careful not to break blisters or scratch your skin as it can lead to an infection. You can loosely cover the rash with a bandage if you wish.

Many people treat mild cases of poison ivy at home, using calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream. Moist compresses can also help relieve symptoms. It is advisable to seek care from a medical provider if you are in severe discomfort. Corticosteroid pills prescribed by your doctor can reduce the allergic reaction and make the symptoms go away quicker.

When you need to seek treatment

Poison ivy can be a serious condition. If you have any of the following symptoms from poison ivy you should seek medical care right away:

  • You have trouble breathing or swallowing
  • The rash covers most of your body
  • You have many rashes or blisters
  • You experience swelling, especially if an eyelid swells shut
  • The rash develops anywhere on your face or genitals
  • Much of your skin itches, or nothing seems to ease the itch

Some people who spend a lot of time outdoors use “ivy-block” lotions which are available at drug stores. These can help prevent you from getting poison ivy. More information on poison ivy can be found at the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology website.

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