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Poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac and poison dogwood: each of these plants harbors an oily substance called urushiol (yoo-ROO-shee-all). Exposure to just 50 micrograms of urushiol – that’s about the size of a grain of salt – results in a nasty red rash and blistering for the 85% of humans who are allergic to it. And the older you get the more likely you are to develop a sensitivity to urushiol. Of the 15% of people who are currently immune, only 3% will retain that immunity throughout their lives. So, unless you like unpleasant surprises, it’s a good idea to assume you are allergic and follow the tips below to protect yourself and your loved ones.

It’s really hard to avoid poison plants

An estimated 50 million people get zapped by urushiol every year in the US. It’s hard to avoid, even if you know what the plants look like. That’s because poison ivy – and its relatives – can appear as vines, shrubs, and bushy trees. They can twirl around other plants, hide in innocent foliage, or creep around the ground. And their rash-causing roots can extend far from the plant. Plus you don’t even have to touch the actual plant to be affected. Urushiol can remain active for at least 5 years on a surface. You can get rid of it by washing contaminated clothing, shoes (including the laces), outdoor gear, gardening tools, and pets with soap intended to cut grease – like dishwashing soap, and hot water. Objects such as gardening tools can be cleaned with a diluted bleach solution or swabbed with rubbing alcohol.

Soothing the Itch

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises people who have been exposed to poison ivy/urushiol to rinse their skin with a grease-cutting soap (such as dishwashing liquid or liquid laundry detergent), and lots of water. But you need to do it fast – within 10 minutes of exposure is ideal.

If a rash does occur, cool baths and anti-itch creams can help.

Get immediate medical assistance if:
  • The person is wheezing or having trouble breathing
  • The person is experiencing swelling in the throat or mouth
  • The rash has spread over most of the body
  • There is facial swelling, especially around the eyes
  • The person has previously experienced severe reactions to urushiol

Other Summer Rashes

Heat rash can look like a poison ivy rash, with small clusters of stinging red bumps or blisters filled with pus. It can happen when perspiration gets trapped under your skin due to blocked sweat ducts – suntan lotion, creams, clothing and skin folds can all cause this to happen. Treat it by keeping the affected area cool and dry. If you still have the rash after a week or so, you may need prescription-strength medication to get those blocked pores open.

Swimmer’s Itch is an allergic reaction to a parasite found in bodies of water, especially still water. Just like poison plant rashes, swimmer’s itch manifests as small, red, and very itchy/burning bumps and blisters. You can soothe the symptoms with calamine lotion, hydrocortisone creams, or antihistamines. Try showering right after a swim to help prevent it.
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