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Treating Poison Ivy,
Oak and Sumac

I hope that treating poison ivy is not part of your next camping trip!

Since avoiding poison ivy is better than treating poison ivy, I'll teach you how to recognize the plants so you can stay away from them.

poison ivy plants

If worse comes to worst and you do get a rash from poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac, I'll tell you what to do about it.

Why do these plants make us itch?

Although poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac are completely different plants, they all have an oil called urushiol on their leaves and stems.

In most people, urushiol causes a rash which can range from mildly itchy to excruciatingly painful.

Think you are immune to urushiol?

Think again! Even if you have contacted the oil in the past with no reaction, you may react to it in the future.

Since poison ivy is the most common of the three plants, I'll speak here of treating poison ivy - but all of this information applies to poison oak and poison sumac too.

Identifying poison ivy

The best approach is to avoid poison ivy completely. Then you'll never need to know about treating poison ivy!

Sadly, poison ivy identification is not simple. There are many varieties of poison ivy - and they all contain urushiol.

Types of poison ivy plants

Poison ivy can be

  • a shrubby plant that carpets the ground
  • a vine-like plant that climbs up trees and posts
  • an upright plant that can grow up to 3 feet tall

poison ivy

Color of the leaves

Depending on the type of plant and the season, the leaves may be

  • dark green
  • bright green
  • bronze-green
  • reddish-green
  • tan
  • wine-red

Shape and size of the leaves

The leaves may have smooth or jagged edges.

They might be largish or smallish or in between!

Poison ivy habitat

There's no easy answer to that, either.

Poison ivy can grow in the open or in the woods.

It can grow in a moist or dry area. It can grow in sand or in a swamp!

Help! I'm confused!

With all of that variability, how can I possibly identify poison ivy?

The best way to identify poison ivy is to look carefully at the leaves.

No matter their size, they will be sort of oval in shape.

Each leaf is made of three leaflets.

The stalk of the middle leaflet is longer than the stalk of the leaflets on the sides.

poison ivy sign

Here are photos of a few more varieties of poison ivy.

Here are some photos of poison oak, and here are pictures of poison sumac.

I think that the best idea is just to avoid any plant with clusters of three leaves! Since a poison ivy rash can be extremely miserable, it's better to be safe than sorry!

Did you know that poison ivy is related to the mango plant? For more interesting information about the poison ivy plant, click here.

Preventing poison ivy rash

If you must be in an area where there may be poison ivy, consider using a pre-contact product like this one. It provides a barrier against the oils. The product is available in cream, spray or towelette form.

If you touch poison ivy

If you think that you may have touched poison ivy (or urushiol oil from any source) you need to remove the oil from your skin immediately, before it has a chance to penetrate. Here's how:


Immediately wash the affected area with a poison ivy removal product.

Technu is said to be very effective at removing urushiol. You can use it on your skin, your pets, and your tools. You can even add it to the washing machine to remove the oil from your clothing.

If you have already contracted a rash, Technu can provide relief from the itching and pain.

Domeboro gets enthusiastic reviews not only for relieving  poison ivy rash, but for speeding up healing of wounds.

Don't have such a product on hand? Use rubbing alcohol. If you don't have a bottle of alcohol handy, get the alcohol swabs from your first aid kit and swab the affected area.

Don't have alcohol swabs either? Wash the area with beer or another alcoholic beverage.

Next best

Immediately wash the affected area with lots and lots of cold water.

You want to flush the oil away completely, not just move it around, so be sure to use lots of water.

Don't use hot water, which will open your pores and let in more oil.

Treating poison ivy

The bad news

If worst comes to worst and you do contract a rash, there is nothing you can do to speed up your healing.

The rash has to run its course, which can take up to two weeks.

The good news

You can reduce the itching and pain. Here's what to do for treating poison ivy:

Step one

  • apply cool compresses (cloths soaked in cool tap water or Epsom salt water) or
  • rub an ice cube gently over the rash or
  • soak in a lukewarm oatmeal bath

Step two

  • let your skin air dry

Step three


  • calamine lotion or
  • a paste of baking soda and water or
  • a poison ivy relief product or
  • a home remedy

Poison ivy relief products

Poison ivy soap

This soap is a blend of essential oils, herbs, extracts, clay, oatmeal and glycerin soap. According to many reviewers, it helps the itch - as long as you follow the directions carefully.

Cortisone pads

This 1% Hydrocortisone gel is "the strongest itch medicine you can buy without a prescription". It also contains aloe, botanicals and oat extract to soothe irritated skin.

Homeopathic remedies

Some people find that taking this remedy regularly during poison ivy season can prevent poison ivy rashes completely. Read the enthusiastic reviews!

Home remedies for poison ivy

I haven't tried any of these for treating poison ivy so I can't recommend them - but I'm guessing that they can't hurt, and might help:

  • a paste of blended raw potato
  • a tea made of burdock root (Don't drink it - apply it to your skin!)
  • banana peels, applied to the skin wet side down

Do not apply sunburn-relief spray, or any product with benzocaine!

Benzocaine will irritate your skin further and will delay your healing.

If your skin blisters

If you have poison ivy blisters, don't break them!

If they break on their own, treat them as you would treat any other blisters:

  • keep the area clean
  • cover it to avoid infection

Read this page about first aid for blisters.

Don't worry - the fluid from the blister does not contain urushiol, and cannot spread the rash.

If you have an extreme case

In some cases, a poison ivy rash can be extreme.

You might want to take an over-the-counter antihistamine. Talk to the pharmacist for help in choosing the right one for you.

Some extreme cases will require medical attention.

Contact your doctor if

  • the rash covers a large area, or
  • the itch and pain are unbearable, or
  • the symptoms don't disappear after a couple of weeks

Your doctor might prescribe a corticosteroid cream.

I wish you a camping holiday free of poison ivy!

Now that you know about treating poison ivy, click here for more basic first aid instructions for your next camping trip.

There's a lot to keep in mind when you go camping! Visit The Camping Family home page to find out what else you need to know.

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