What Does The Poison Ivy Rash Look Like

About 85 percent of Americans are allergic to poison ivy. These people will experience mild, but irritating, symptoms, such as a red rash, itching, and swelling. Of those who are allergic, about 10 to 15 percent will have a severe reaction. They may develop fluid-filled blisters that become infected.

Everything You Need to Know About Poison Ivy

Poison ivy rash is caused by contact with poison ivy, a plant that grows almost everywhere in the United States. The sap of the poison ivy plant, also known as Toxicodendron radicans, contains an oil called urushiol. This is the irritant that causes an allergic reaction and rash.

You don’t even have to come in direct contact with the plant to have a reaction. The oil can linger on your gardening equipment, golf clubs, or even your shoes. Brushing against the plant — or anything that’s touched it — can result in skin irritation, pain, and itching.

Here’s how to spot the danger, and what you can do if poison ivy gets too close.

The allergic reaction caused by poison ivy is known as contact dermatitis. It happens when your skin comes into contact with an irritant, such as urushiol.

Poison ivy exposure can result in thin red lines on the skin when you’ve brushed against the edge of the leaves directly. If you touch pets that have the oil on their fur or touch clippings when emptying the mower bag, the rash can cover a larger area.

Classic symptoms that you’ve come into contact with poison ivy include:

  • swelling
  • redness
  • itching
  • painful blisters
  • difficulty breathing, if you inhale smoke from burning poison ivy

The rash may begin appearing within 12 hours; it can take a few days to fully develop. Its severity depends on how much urushiol you get on your skin.

If you know you touched poison ivy leaves, you won’t need to see a doctor for an official diagnosis. If you do decide to visit your doctor, they can diagnose a poison ivy rash by looking at your skin. No other tests, such as a biopsy, will be needed.

Your doctor may order tests to help identify the cause of your symptoms if they’re not sure poison ivy caused the rash. Several common skin issues can cause red, itchy rashes.

For example, a common skin condition called psoriasis can be confused with a poison ivy rash. Psoriasis can cause a red rash with whitish-silver scales. This rash can be itchy, and it may even crack and bleed.

Psoriasis, unlike a poison ivy rash, will likely come back after it disappears. That’s because psoriasis is a chronic autoimmune disorder. Learn how to tell the difference between the two conditions so you can decide which you may be experiencing.

If you’ve gotten a rash despite your best efforts to avoid the plant, there are things you can do. You can usually treat the rash yourself at home. Poison ivy doesn’t have a cure, but even left untreated, it will eventually clear on its own within two to three weeks.

However, you should go to the emergency room for urgent medical care if:

  • you have shortness of breath
  • you have trouble swallowing
  • the rash is on your face or genitals
  • the areas with the rash are swelling
  • the rash covers a large area of your body

Most cases of poison ivy don’t need to be treated by a doctor. Widespread poison ivy rashes may require treatment with a prescription corticosteroid. Rarely, you can also develop a bacterial infection at the rash site. If this happens, you may need a prescription antibiotic.

If you’ve come into contact with poison ivy, here’s what to do:

Wash your skin and clothes

Immediately wash any areas of your skin that might have touched the plant. This may help remove some of the oil and lessen the severity of your reaction.

Also, be sure to wash the clothes you were wearing, along with anything that may have touched the plant. Although the rash can’t spread, the oil that caused it can.

Take an antihistamine

Taking an over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamine can help relieve itching and allow you to sleep more comfortably.

Apply drying lotion

Apply calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream topically to stop the itching.

Don’t scratch

Scratching the rash will only make things worse. While it may bring immediate comfort, scratching will only prolong symptoms. You may even develop an infection if you break the skin, causing itching to intensify.

Soothe your skin

Take frequent warm baths in water containing an oatmeal product or apply cool, wet compresses to help relieve the itch.

Some home remedies can help reduce irritation and itching while the rash is healing. These include:

Menthol cream

Organic compounds from peppermint have a cooling effect on irritated skin. You can buy OTC products with this ingredient, or you can make your own with peppermint essential oils.

Be sure to dilute the essential oil in a lotion or oil so it does not irritate the sensitive skin.

Several other essential oils, including calendula, chamomile, and eucalyptus may be helpful for reducing symptoms of poison ivy rash. Learn more about these oils and how to use them on irritated skin.

Aloe vera

The soothing burn treatment can also relieve itching and inflammation in skin affected by a poison ivy rash.

Colloidal oatmeal

Oatmeal baths are a popular home treatment for skin rashes and conditions. The finely ground oats can coat the skin and relieve itching temporarily.

Witch hazel

A liquid product of the Hamamelis virginiana plant, witch hazel may ease itching, swelling, and burning on irritated skin.

Apple cider vinegar

Apple cider vinegar is a popular alternative poison ivy treatment. Research isn’t clear why it helps, but anecdotal evidence suggests the vinegar solution helps dry up urushiol, which can speed healing.

No, poison ivy is not contagious. It cannot spread from person to person.

It can, however, be spread in a few other scenarios. For example, a pet that encounters poison ivy leaves can carry the urushiol oil in its fur. When you touch the animal, you may pick up the oil and develop a rash.

Clothing fibers can also spread poison ivy’s oil.

If you touch poison ivy with a pair of pants or shirt and do not wash it after contact is made, you could develop another rash if you touch the clothing. You can also spread the oil to another person, if they come into contact with clothes that have touched poison ivy.

A poison ivy rash cannot spread across your body either.

You may notice, however, that the rash develops over the course of several days. Poison ivy rashes can grow slowly, which may give the appearance of spreading. But a rash will only occur on areas of the skin that came into contact with the urushiol oil.

If you get a poison ivy rash after the initial exposure, consider everything you’ve touched that may carry the oil. Learn more about what these objects could be and what you can do to avoid sharing the oil with yourself or others again.

About 85 percent of Americans are allergic to poison ivy. These people will experience mild, but irritating, symptoms, such as a red rash, itching, and swelling. Of those who are allergic, about 10 to 15 percent will have a severe reaction. They may develop fluid-filled blisters that become infected.

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Infants and toddlers can also develop a poison ivy rash. It may take several hours or days for the rash to fully develop. In severe cases, the child may also develop blisters.

The only way to know if you’re allergic to poison ivy is to touch it, which isn’t recommended. Instead, try learning what poison ivy looks like. This way you can work to avoid contact.

As with many other perennial plants, poison ivy changes with the seasons. The leaves of the poison ivy plant are green in the summer, but can turn red, orange, or yellow in the spring and fall.

The plant may flower with greenish-yellow blossoms and produce small, green berries that turn white in the fall.

Unfortunately, poison ivy can spread urushiol to skin in all seasons. Even in winter, when the leaves are gone, you can come into contact with the plant’s berries or aerial roots and pick up some of the sticky oil.

Older poison ivy shrubs or vines develop thin, hair-like roots above ground. These are the aerial roots, and they help identify the plant when the leaves have all fallen away for winter.

Poison ivy is native to every state except California, Alaska, and Hawaii and can be found in Central America, Mexico, and Canada as well. It’s been introduced to countries in Central America, Asia, and Europe and is found in Australia and New Zealand too. So, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll eventually cross paths with it.

Tips for identifying poison ivy

Learning how to identify poison ivy may help you avoid this highly irritating plant.

Poison ivy grows as a shrub in the northern and western United States.

The most commonly found type of poison ivy is known as western poison ivy. This type can grow to be anywhere from 6 to 30 inches tall. A second type, known as eastern poison ivy, grows as a trailing vine along the ground or clinging to trees in the East, Midwest, and South.

For both western and eastern poison ivy, the leaves are made up of three-pointed leaf clusters that have a glossy surface. This is where the old saying, “Leaves of three, let it be,” comes from. The edge of the leaflets can be toothed or smooth.

While certainly uncomfortable and irritating, a poison ivy rash doesn’t pose a serious risk to a pregnant woman or a developing baby.

Typical home remedies, including colloid oatmeal baths and topical anti-itch medicines are safe for pregnant women to use. However, it’s a good idea to talk with a doctor before taking any medications like Benadryl.

If you have any serious reactions during pregnancy, seek treatment right away and consult with your obstetrician as well.

Most Americans are allergic to poison ivy. More than 4 in 5 people will develop an itchy, red, swollen skin rash when they come into contact with poison ivy and its urushiol oil.

Of the people who are allergic to poison ivy, a smaller group are hypersensitive to the plant. These individuals are more likely to develop a severe reaction. About 10 to 15 percent of people with an allergy to poison ivy fall into this severe category.

A severe poison ivy allergy causes:

  • severe swelling
  • difficulty breathing
  • blisters that become inflamed and infected

People with a severe poison ivy allergy should see their doctor as soon as a rash begins to develop. Treatments, including corticosteroids and antibiotics, may help reduce the severity of symptoms.

A poison ivy rash is bothersome. The itching and swelling can be irritating. Rarely, a poison ivy rash can be serious or fatal. When this happens, it’s often the result of complications caused by the reaction.

Complications of a poison ivy rash include:

Infection

A bacterial infection is a common complication of a poison ivy rash. Repeated scratching can cause microscopic breaks in the skin. Bacteria can make their way into the breaks, and an infection can develop. You will need antibiotics to treat this.

Poison ivy in the lungs

If you come into contact with poison ivy that is burning, you may inhale plant compounds. This can lead to irritation in the lungs, airways, and eyes.

Spreading

A poison ivy rash will only develop on skin that comes into contact with the plant’s oils. However, you can transfer the oil to other parts of your body if urushiol remains on your hands.

Also, the oil can remain on items like a pet’s fur, clothing, gardening utensils, and recreational equipment. If these items are not properly washed, you can pick up the oil again later, causing another rash.

Death

If you begin experiencing breathing or swallowing difficulties after coming into contact with poison ivy, seek treatment right away. This is an emergency situation that could become deadly without proper treatment.

An allergic reaction occurs when the oil comes in contact with your skin. Knowing what to look for is only part of the equation when it comes to avoiding the rash. The key is to prevent contact.

Prepare yourself before venturing into places where you might find the plant. This means covering your skin before gardening or doing other outdoor activities. You should also wear eye protection while mowing.

If you can’t cover your body completely, use an ivy blocking cream. There are several varieties that protect your skin from absorbing urushiol. They usually contain an ingredient called bentoquatam.

Apply it before going outdoors. Pack a supply of ivy blocking cream to take along with you if you’re hiking or camping.

Carefully clean items that have touched poison ivy to prevent exposure later. Gardening tools, sporting equipment, and camping supplies can all harbor urushiol.

A little prevention can go a long way. If you take precautions, you may never discover how uncomfortable the rash can be.

Last medically reviewed on April 17, 2019

What Does Poison Ivy Look Like?

Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.

Emily is a board-certified science editor who has worked with top digital publishing brands like Voices for Biodiversity, Study.com, GoodTherapy, Vox, and Verywell.

Poison ivy growing on a tree trunk

Table of Contents
Table of Contents

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans or Toxicodendron rydbergii) and its cousins, poison oak and poison sumac, grow widely throughout North America. While not truly poisonous, they all cause a painful, itchy rash upon contact due to the oil (called urushiol) in their leaves, stems, and roots. Learning to identify poison ivy and the rash it causes can help with both treatment and prevention.

Poison Ivy Rash

The classic rash of poison ivy on a child's arm.

The urushiol in poison ivy, oak, and sumac remains in the roots, stems, and leaves of the plant whether it’s alive, dried up, or dead, so you can get a poison ivy rash even in the winter.

If you think you have touched poison ivy, immediately wash your skin and clothes with soap and cool water or a poison ivy cleanser to:

  • Remove as much urushiol as possible
  • Lessen the severity of the rash
  • Prevent the oil from spreading on your body or around your home

Poison ivy plants should never be burned because the vapors can carry urushiol through the air and cause dangerous inflammation of the airway if they are inhaled.

Symptoms

Symptoms of poison ivy rash develop anywhere from 1 to 7 days after exposure, depending on how much urushiol is present, the skin’s thickness, and how sensitive the person is.

A poison ivy rash has the following features:

  • Itching
  • Painful blisters or vesicles filled with fluid
  • Red bumps that appear in straight lines or streaks
  • Swelling

The symptoms of poison ivy rash can worsen over the days following contact. The rash tends to take longer to appear on areas with thicker skin, such as elbows and knees.

Although it may be difficult (especially for children), try not to scratch the affected areas, as this can cause infections to develop. However, it is a myth that scratching and/or open blisters can spread the rash to different areas of the body or to other people.

See also  Delayed Reaction To Wasp Sting

Remedies

There is no cure for poison ivy rash other than time. Poison ivy rash generally takes about 7-10 days to resolve.

However, there are home remedies that can help relieve the symptoms and encourage healing. While the rash can be painful and irritating, it does not generally require medical treatment. Some home remedies to try:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) cortisone: Topical steroid creams and gels can lessen inflammation and help heal poison ivy rash faster.
  • Anti-itch creams: A variety of creams and lotions can help soothe the itchiness of the rash, such as Calamine Lotion, Caladryl Clear Topical Analgesic Skin Lotion, and Aveeno Anti-Itch Cream.
  • Cool compresses: Apply cool, wet compresses to the itchy areas for 15 to 30 minutes several times a day.
  • Cool oatmeal baths: Cool or lukewarm oatmeal baths can help relieve the itchiness and provide relief while the rash heals.

When to Seek Medical Attention

While poison ivy rash can usually be treated at home, you should seek urgent medical attention if you experience any of these severe symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling, especially on the face
  • Trouble swallowing

You should also seek medical attention if the rash is on your face, genitals, or a large area of your body. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics or corticosteroids to speed the healing process.

What Does Poison Ivy Look Like?

Poison ivy closeup

Although poison ivy isn’t the only plant with leaves that grow in clusters of three, the adage “leaves of three, leave them be” is a smart way to avoid coming into contact with it. Learning how to identify poison ivy, oak, and sumac by several characteristics will help ensure that you know exactly which plants to avoid.

There are two types of poison ivy in the United States: eastern and western. The western type is a low-growing shrub that is typically under 3 feet tall. Eastern poison ivy is a vine that can grow quite long, either along the ground or as a fuzzy root-covered vine climbing up tree trunks.

  • Leaves: Both eastern and western poison ivy have green, 2- to 4-inch-long leaves that grow in groups of three. Young plants may display reddish, droopy leaves. Mature poison ivy leaves are smooth, either glossy or dull, and turn bright red and yellow in the fall. The leaf edges can be lobed or smooth.
  • Flowers and berries: In the spring, small yellow flowers bloom close to the vine of the plant. Later in the summer, the blossoms are replaced by light green, gray, or white berries.
  • Roots and stems: Poison ivy stems are thornless. They will root where they make contact with the ground, which makes the plant difficult to kill because pieces of the stem and roots can grow into new plants.

The University of Massachusetts Extension Weed Herbarium offers pictures of various parts of the poison ivy plant to help with identification.

Where It’s Located

Poison ivy grows throughout the United States with the exception of Alaska, Hawaii, the rainforests of Washington state, and some arid deserts of the west. It can be found in forests and wetlands, on beaches, along streams, and even in urban parks and yards.

Poison ivy thrives in partial shade, so it’s more common along the edge of forests and trails than in completely shaded areas or sunny spots.

However, it’s smart to keep an eye out even in the deep woods, as this plant is able to grow in a wide range of conditions.

The two types of poison ivy do have slightly different geographic ranges:

  • Eastern poison ivy: As its name suggests, eastern poison ivy is native to New England and grows prolifically in the eastern parts of North America, though it can be found as far west as Arizona.
  • Western poison ivy: The term “western” is somewhat misleading, as western poison ivy grows all over the U.S. It is found across the western states, the Great Plains, and in the northeast.

Other Forms to Watch for

Poison oak and sumac are in the same genus as poison ivy (Toxicodendron) and contain the same skin irritant, urushiol. While the terms are often used interchangeably, there are differences in appearance between poison ivy, oak, and sumac.

What Does Poison Oak Look Like?

Poison oak has three leaflets like poison ivy, but its leaves have rounded edges (similar to oak leaves). Their undersides are fuzzy and are generally lighter green than poison ivy.

The plant is also more shrub-like without the long vining stems that poison ivy often displays. Poison oak grows mostly west of the Rocky Mountains.

What Does Poison Sumac Look Like?

Poison sumac has more than three leaves. In fact, it can have seven to 13 smooth leaflets arranged in pairs along a slender stem. It looks like a shrub or small tree that can reach a height of 25 feet. In the fall, poison sumac has red stems with orange-red leaves.

This plant is most common in the southeastern United States, although it can also be found in the Great Lakes region and in the northeast.

Tips for Avoiding

Because the slightest contact with poison ivy can cause a rash, protect yourself and your family by taking precautions when you are outdoors:

  • Wear the right clothing: When spending time in areas where poison ivy thrives, wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and boots with tall socks.
  • Wear gloves: If working in an area where you might come into contact with poison ivy, wear gloves and be sure they are long enough to cover the ends of your shirt sleeves, and do not touch your face or any other exposed areas.
  • Choose the correct footwear: Boots are best if you’re hiking because they will protect your ankles and feet. Always wear closed-toe shoes anywhere poison ivy might be growing.
  • Avoid areas where poison ivy is common: Stick to the middle of paths and trails, avoiding shortcuts through the woods.
  • Know what to look for: Learn the identifying features of all three plants, and teach your kids how to spot them, too.
  • Change clothes and clean equipment afterward: Because touching clothing, pets, or other materials that came into contact with the plant can transfer the irritating oils to your skin, wash everything with water and soap (including pets) after any possible exposure.
  • Use a poison ivy skin cleanser: If you know you have touched poison ivy, using a product such as Tecnu Extreme (which combines an exfoliant with a cleanser to remove the urushiol) can help reduce your chances of developing a rash.
  • Use protective lotion: Bentoquatam lotion (sold as Ivy Block) can prevent poison ivy rashes by protecting your skin from the plant’s oils. Apply it 15 minutes before possible exposure to the plant, and then every 4 hours afterward. Ask your doctor before using on children under the age of 6.

Bentoquatam cannot be used as a treatment for an existing rash; it is only a preventative measure.

A Word From Verywell

Even if you can identify poison ivy, poison oak, and sumac, it’s possible to bump into it accidentally or get a rash through contact with the oils on pets or clothes. If you start developing a rash, be sure to administer home remedies or OTC treatments as soon as possible to relieve your symptoms. You can also call your healthcare provider if you have any concerns.

Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. U.S. Forest Service. Welcome to the Forest Service: A guide for volunteers.
  2. Des Moines University of Medicine and Health Sciences. Everything you need to know about poison ivy.
  3. American Academy of Dermatology. Poison ivy, oak, and sumac.
  4. University of Massachusetts Amherst Center for Agriculture, Food, and the Environment. Poison ivy.
  5. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Poison ivy, oak, and sumac: how to treat the rash.
  6. Rocky Mountain Research Station; Fire Sciences Laboratory. Toxicodendron radicans, T. rydbergii.
  7. Army Public Health Center. Poison Sumac Fact Sheet.
  8. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Bentoquatam topical.

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.

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Alex Koliada, PhD, is a well-known doctor. He is famous for his studies of ageing, genetics and other medical conditions. He works at the Institute of Food Biotechnology and Genomics NAS of Ukraine. His scientific researches are printed by the most reputable international magazines. Some of his works are: Differences in the gut Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes ratio across age groups in healthy Ukrainian population [BiomedCentral.com]; Mating status affects Drosophila lifespan, metabolism and antioxidant system [Science Direct]; Anise Hyssop Agastache foeniculum Increases Lifespan, Stress Resistance, and Metabolism by Affecting Free Radical Processes in Drosophila [Frontiersin].
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