Here’s What to Do If You Have an Extreme Poison Ivy Reaction

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Here’s What to Do If You Have an Extreme Poison Ivy Reaction featured image

Summer didn’t even officially hit last week when a photo of a woman with really, really bad poison ivy made the rounds on Twitter.

Emily Petrozza, 21, noticed poison on her arms after going fishing. Soon after, her face began to swell—to the point that her eyes were swollen shut.

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Petrozza went to the doctor and has since recovered, but the incident brings attention to the fact that rashes and blisters from poison ivy is a very common skin care concern, especially in the summer months.

“Poison ivy is indigenous to the East Coast and Midwest; poison oak is on the West Coast,” says Los Gatos, CA, dermatologist Steven L. Swengel, MD. “The term ‘leaves of three, let it be’ really does mean something when you think you may be around these plants.”

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“In northern California, poison oak is so prevalent that I tell patients, any scrubby bush or twiggy plant from the Bay Area to the coast should be considered poison oak until proven otherwise. These plants secrete an oil called urushiol that is a potent contact allergen.”

But besides just feeling itchy, Dr. Swengel explains that, with repeated exposure and improper skin care after exposure, you are actually putting yourself at risk of developing a contact dermatitis to the oil. “Once you have become sensitized, there is no going back and an even greater need to carefully avoid any and all contact from that point on,” he says. “The initial primary exposure usually causes a blistered, linear, itchy rash on skin that was exposed to the leaves and twigs, leaving a ‘scritch-scratch’ appearance. This rash can take up to a week to appear. The blisters will dry and the involved areas remain pink for several weeks. A secondary exposure [once you have been exposed and gone through the primary reaction] usually results in very rapid onset of dramatic swelling (edema) and redness to the afflicted areas, occurring in a period of 24 hours—as seen in that picture of the face that went viral on the internet.”

Treatment consists of cold compresses and usually a combination of oral and topical steroids that need to be used for at least two weeks to keep the reaction under control as the body heals. “All clothing, pets, gloves, car seats, blankets, golf clubs, soccer balls, etc., that might have the oil on them must be cleaned with hot soapy water and/or alcohol wipe downs. For those who are highly sensitive to poison oak/ivy, you can apply Ivy Guard lotion to the skin prior to your outing. This product helps to denature the oils before they can start the allergic process. If you think you have been exposed, I suggest a single wipe down to all potentially exposed areas with rubbing alcohol saturated rags, as well as tossing any and all clothing into a hot soapy wash.”

And remember, a reaction to poison ivy isn’t something you’ll grow out of. “Once allergic, always allergic,” Dr. Swengel says. “From that point on, avoid, avoid and avoid!”

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