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These Are the Best Home Remedies for Poison Ivy + One OTC That May Worsen Irritation for Some

Plus learn how to identify the poison ivy plant (it can change color depending on the season)

It starts off as a small, itchy patch of skin you scratch absentmindedly. But within a few days, an intensely itchy, bubbling rash emerges. Ugh, it’s poison ivy. When were you were exposed? And more importantly, what home remedies for poison ivy can provide some much-needed relief?

A poison ivy rash is caused by urushiol, a highly potent oil found in all parts of a vine-like plant called Toxicodendron radicans (it’s also in poison ivy’s “cousins”, poison oak and poison sumac). The rash is a form of dermatitis, or an allergic reaction to urushiol. According to the American Skin Association, about 50% to 75% of people are susceptible to this allergy. Even a tiny dot of urushiol oil — the size of a grain of salt — is enough to spur a reaction.

Myths about poison ivy can spread as fast as the itchy rash itself. But knowing what to do early on can spare you a lot of anguish. So we asked a dermatologist and plant identification expert to set the record straight on what home remedies for poison ivy work, what you should skip and the best tricks to identify the troublemaking plant in the future.

How long does poison ivy last?

A typical poison ivy rash lasts about 1 to 2 weeks, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. That said, reactions to poison ivy differ greatly, notes Boston-based dermatologist Thomas E. Rohrer, MD. For some people, “the rash can persist for weeks on end, even after the oils have been washed off,” he says. A severe outbreak can take up to a month to go away without medical intervention.

Despite what you may have heard, the poison ivy rash doesn’t travel around the body or enter the bloodstream and spread that way, says Dr. Rohrer. So why does the rash seem to keep cropping up in new places? It usually appears first in areas of the body with the greatest exposure. “This is often the lower leg or forearms,” he explains. “It then typically gets on the hands and spreads from there to other parts of the body that you touch.” Sensitive areas, like the eyelids, can have a rapid and extensive reaction, Dr. Rohrer warns.

A sign that says "caution poison ivy" in the woods next to a poison ivy plant

See also: Joint Pain + Rash May Be Early Warning Signs of Psoriatic Arthritis — Here’s What Can Help

How long is poison ivy contagious?

First, the good news: The poison ivy rash itself is not contagious. You can’t spread the rash to another person if they touch the blisters, Dr. Rohrer says. The allergic skin reaction can only be triggered by exposure to urushiol.

That said, you can pick up urushiol from clothes, tools or pets that have the oil on them. “We see this fairly often with dogs,” he notes. “The oil gets on their fur and is transferred to your skin when you pet them. These rashes tend to be more blotchy, while the rash from touching the plant itself is often a straight line of blisters.”

Home remedies for poison ivy: What works + what doesn’t

First things first: If you think you’ve come into contact with poison ivy, act fast. Put on gloves, carefully remove any exposed clothing and toss it all into the washing machine. Then use a washcloth to clean your skin thoroughly with soap (such as Dawn or Dial) and water, which can help remove the urushiol oil before it triggers a rash, suggests research out of the University of Missouri School of Medicine.

If a poison ivy rash has already started to creep in, you want to treat it with the most effective home remedies. Here’s what really works and what you should skip:

1. Avoid topical antihistamines

Some topical treatments in your first aid kit might not relieve the itch much, and could even cause it to become more irritated, Dr. Rohrer says. “We don’t usually recommend topical antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl gel) because they are not designed for poison ivy and many people are allergic or can become allergic to them.” The same goes for calamine lotion, which may not be strong enough to calm this intense itch, he adds.

2. Try a urushiol remover

Zanfel is a urushiol remover that works after exposure to the poison ivy plant and can help even when the rash is established. And when it comes to home remedies for poison ivy, this one is safe to use on the face. Simply rub a small amount between your fingers and apply it to the affected area, then wash it off in the shower. A more budget-friendly pick that can also do the trick: Tecnu Poison Ivy and Oak Scrub, which helps clear the urushiol.

See also: Doctors’ Best Home Remedies for Summer Bothers Like Bug Bites, Splinters + More

3. Smooth on an anti-itch cream

A close-up of a mature woman in a white tank top applying a cream to her arm

Cortizone 10 cream or ointment is one of the most common home remedies for poison ivy. While it can help tame the itch, it doesn’t clear urushiol from the skin. “This product, a 1% hydrocortisone steroid cream, is a bit weak for many cases of poison ivy,” Dr. Rohrer notes. “A stronger prescription-strength steroid is usually much better. If you have a severe or widespread rash, your doctor may prescribe a course of oral steroids to bring the reaction down.”

Another option is Tricalm, a general itch-reliever containing aluminum acetate 0.2% hydrogel. This is recommended by some dermatologists as an add-on to prescribed steroid treatments.

Related: Is Your Mosquito Bite Infected? How To Tell if It’s Cellulitis + Ways To Speed Healing

4. Skip apple cider vinegar

Your grandma might have sworn by home remedies like apple cider vinegar or oatmeal washes for poison ivy. These DIY treatments have a mild drying effect on the oozing blisters, but there’s not yet evidence they clear the rash any faster. In fact, the National Poison Control Center discourages people from using vinegar to treat wounds, since it may increase the risk of a bacterial infection. (Instead, see 14 brilliant uses for apple cider vinegar.)

How to identify poison ivy

“The old saying ‘leaves of three, let it be’ is a good place to start,” says botanist Mark Schlessman, PhD, professor of biology emeritus at Vassar College. Technically, the “leaves of three” refers to refers to three leaflets of an individual leaf.

Here’s what else you need to know: In summer, poison ivy leaves tend to be bright green. But in spring, the leaves may be tinged reddish-purple. And in early fall, the leaves can turn completely red, Schlessman says. Poison ivy grows on a vine-like stem that can run horizontally along the ground or climb on anything vertical. “You might accidentally walk through poison ivy at ground level, or brush by it or lean on it if it’s climbing a fence or tree,” he notes.

A poison ivy plant in the woods
Ed Reschke/Getty

Poison ivy is seldom hiding out in the deep woods. “It’s usually found in disturbed habitats like the side of the road or boarders between open areas and woods, such as fence lines,” Schlessman says. The bottom line: “If a plant has three leaves and you’re not sure what it is, don’t touch it, lean on it or sit near it unless and until you know for a fact that it’s not poison ivy,” he adds.

For more ways to soothe common skin bothers:

Dermatologists Reveal How Tea Tree Oil May Work Better to Heal Red, Itchy Skin on Face and Scalp Than Prescription Drugs

Stress Hives Can Be Itchy and Embarrassing — Here’s How to Speed Relief and Block Flare-Ups

Doctors Say These Kitchen Staples Speed Healing of a Painful Skin Ulcer

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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