If all that summer fun in the great outdoors has left you with a red, itchy rash, read this.

By Melanie Rud
June 26, 2019
Getty Images/OliverChilds

Whether you're camping, gardening, or simply hanging out in the backyard, there's no denying that poison ivy can be one of summer's biggest pitfalls. The reaction caused when it comes into contact with your skin—namely, itchiness, a rash, and blistering—is actually an allergy to a compound in the sap of the plant, says New York City dermatologist Rita Linkner, M.D., of Spring Street Dermatology. (Fun fact: The technical term for this is urushiol, and it's the same problematic culprit in poison oak and poison sumac.)

Because it's an allergic reaction, not everyone will have an issue with it, although it is an incredibly common allergen; about 85 percent of the population is allergic to it, according to the American Skin Association. (Related: 4 Surprising Things That Are Affecting Your Allergies)

To the same point, you won't experience a reaction the first time you come in contact with poison ivy. "The allergy will show up after the second exposure and thereafter, gradually getting worse as your body mounts an increasingly intense immune response every time," explains Dr. Linkner. In other words, even if you brushed up against it once and were totally fine, you may not be quite as lucky next time. (Related: What Is Skeeter Syndrome? This Allergic Reaction to Mosquitoes Is Actually a Real Thing)

If you do contract poison ivy, don't panic, and follow these derm tips to get rid of it.

Make sure to do a deep clean.

"Poison ivy resin is extremely hard to remove and spreads easily," notes Chicago dermatologist Jordan Carqueville, M.D. "Even if it only touched one part of your body, if you scratch that area and then touch another spot, you can end up with poison ivy in two places. I've even seen family members contract it from one another because it can linger on and spread via clothing," she says.

So if you did come into contact with it, the first thing to do is thoroughly wash the area with hot, soapy water (and do the same for any clothing, too). If that's not an option, say, while you're on a camping trip in the middle of nowhere, alcohol wipes are another good way to remove the resin, says Dr. Carqueville.

Assess the severity of your reaction and treat it accordingly.

How "bad" the case of poison ivy is will depend on the individual, though a universal telltale sign is blisters that form in a linear pattern, notes Dr. Linkner. If it's a more mild case—i.e. just some itching and redness—Dr. Carqueville suggests taking an oral antihistamine, such as Benadryl, and applying an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream to the affected area. (That is, after you've cleaned it thoroughly.)

Calamine lotion can also help alleviate some of the itch, though both derms are quick to note that there's no real fast or overnight fix for poison ivy. No matter how mild the case may be, getting rid of poison ivy usually dates a few days and up to a week. And if it persists or gets worse after a week, be sure to head to a doc. (Related: What's Causing Your Itchy Skin?)

See a doctor for more severe reactions.

If you're experiencing redness, itching, or blistering from the start, head to a dermatologist or urgent care. Cases like this require either a prescription-strength oral and/or topical steroid, warns Dr. Linkner, who adds that no at-home remedy is going to cut it here. Adding insult to injury, if the skin is blistering, you're also susceptible to permanent scarring, particularly if the blisters pop and are then exposed to the sun, she says. The bottom line: Get yourself to a doctor, ASAP.

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