Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac Treatment and Complications

What is the treatment for poison ivy, oak, and sumac dermatitis?

The best approach to poison ivy, oak, or sumac dermatitis is prevention. Washing with soap and water can help reduce the severity of the rash, but this is often impractical because it has to be done at once after exposure. (After 10 minutes, only 50% of the resin is removable, and by 30 minutes only 10%.)

Most plant poison dermatitis is a mild rash that clears within five to 12 days, almost always cleared by 14-21 days. Treatment is directed at controlling the itching. Oral antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), may help the itch somewhat, but often they do no more than make people drowsy. Cortisone creams, whether over the counter or by prescription, are only helpful if applied right away, before blisters appear, or much later, when the blisters have dried up. Compresses with Burow's solution (available without prescription) can help dry the ooze faster. Local anesthetic agents such as calamine lotion have also been shown to bring relief for some people. Oatmeal baths and cool compresses have also been recommended to help relieve symptoms.

When the rash is severe, such as when it affects the face or causes extensive blistering, oral steroids (for example, prednisone) can help produce rapid improvement. This course of therapy should be maintained, often in decreasing doses, for 10-14 days or even longer in some cases, to prevent having the rash rebound and become severe again. Patients who are given a six-day pack of cortisone pills often get worse again when they complete it because the dose was too low and administered for too short a time.

Folklore, medical and otherwise, endorses many other agents, including aloe leaves, vinegar, baking soda, tea bags, and meat tenderizer as treatments for poison ivy and related plant poisonings. Though these remedies are generally harmless, they are of questionable value.

What are the complications from poison ivy, oak, and sumac dermatitis?

Serious complications from poison ivy, oak, and sumac dermatitis are rare. The most common complication is the development of bacterial infections at the site of the rash due to breaks in the skin caused by repeated scratching. Bacterial infections of the skin may require antibiotic treatment and in rare cases may spread to other areas of the body.

Again, in rare situations, the eyes, airway, and lungs may be affected if exposed to smoke from burning plants.

What is the prognosis (outlook) for poison ivy, oak, and sumac dermatitis?

The prognosis for poison ivy, oak, and sumac dermatitis is generally excellent, with the majority of infections clearing on their own completely within two weeks.


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Medically reviewed by John A. Daller, MD; American Board of Surgery with subspecialty certification in surgical critical care


Stephanides, Steven L., and Chris Moore. "Plant Poisoning, Toxicodendron." eMedicine.com. Aug. 18, 2009. <http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/817671-overview>.