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For Poison Ivy, Try Dish Soap, Says IU Dermatologist

Sandy Roob

"If you’ve ever had a case of poison ivy, you’re in good company. Eighty percent of Americans are allergic to the plant’s oil. If you’re among us, chances are you’re allergic to poison oak and poison sumac as well. Dr. Kristin Hoffmann, a dermatologist with the Indiana University School of Medicine, has treated lots of patients who have fallen victim to urushiol, the oil found in all three plants," reports Sound Medicine's Sandy Roob.

Dr. Kristin Hoffmann: When people actually present to a dermatologist they will have a fairly wide spread eruption of streaky linear very itchy dermatitis or skin rash that’s incredibly itchy. Often times with vesicles or bullae or blisters associated with it. 

Roob: Whether you get poison ivy while working in the yard, hiking, or camping…the best thing you can do is wash it off immediately. The allergen in the plant is water soluble for a very brief period of time. If you wash it off within ten minutes about 50 percent of the allergen could be removed, enough to avoid an allergic reaction. But, after one hour, it basically binds to your skin. 

Hoffmann: And so what we recommend is people when they realize they’ve been exposed wash with copious amounts of water their entire body and also with soap. 

Roob: And not the gentle soaps that dermatologists generally recommend, but something tougher. What you have under the kitchen sink will work just fine. 

Hoffmann: Actually we look at a dish soap or something that can wash off the oils, sort of designed to remove oils. Urshiol is an oily resin that gets stuck to the skin. 

Roob: That pesky resin can also attach to things you touch like clothes, garden tools, and pets, and it can linger for months. So you’ll want to wash exposed items to avoid re-contamination. If you happen to get a red, streaky, itchy rash 24 to 72 hours after exposure you can usually treat the symptoms at home.

Hoffmann: do cool bathes, cool compresses, calamine lotion is fantastic, if it gets to the blistering stage it sort of dries those blisters out. If you have a mild case could try over the counter hydrocortisone. 

Roob: Resist the urge to scratch since it can prolong healing and may cause a secondary infection. Severe cases of poison ivy need the attention of a doctor. I caught up with Pediatric Anesthesiologist Brian Egan at work. He sought medical help and got steroids and prescription pills and cream after he had a serious reaction from ripping out vines that were climbing up a tree in his yard. 

Credit Sandy Roob

 Brian Egan: I unfortunately didn’t take the advice of my neighbor who said they thought that might be poison ivy. I thought that doesn’t look like poison ivy. 

Roob: Now he knows that poison ivy can grow as a vine as well as a plant. The green or yellow leaves, that grow three to a stem, can have smooth or jagged edges. Egan says he’ll never again wear a tee shirt and shorts while weeding and offers this advice.

Egan: Always do yard work in long sleeves and pants and you’ll help yourself out quite a bit.

Roob: Don’t forget to tuck your pants into your socks and wear heavy work gloves as well. I’m Sandy Roob encouraging you to help yourself.

  • For photos of poison ivy, click here.  
  • For tips on treating poison ivy, click here