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Sanford East Mandan Clinic

Last summer I was miserable from a rash I got after a weekend of camping. How do I avoid a repeat this summer?

You most likely came into contact with poison ivy, which is a more common cause of outdoor skin irritations in our region. Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac contacts can all result in a red, itchy rash that may progress to having small bumps, swelling and even blisters. The only way to avoid a contact rash is to not come in contact with the “poison.” Stay on pathways when biking, look for poison ivy before pitching a tent. In short, learn to recognize outdoor plants that cause skin irritation and avoid contact with them.

Can you get the rash without touching the plant?

To be affected, your skin must touch the plant’s oil, and it takes only a small amount to cause a reaction. A reaction occurs anywhere from 12 to 48 hours after contact with the plant. If you scratch the rash, you can cause a secondary infection. You can also transfer the oil to other parts of your body by touching the exposed skin, your clothing that came in contact, or a pet that has had contact. The oil can also remain on your clothing and still contaminate you much later so it’s a good idea to wash outdoor clothes after an outing.

Is poison ivy contagious?

You cannot get poison ivy from another person unless you come into contact with the plant oil on that individual’s body. The rash itself is not contagious.

How do I recognize poison ivy?

Most typically, look for a weed-like plant that has three leaves on a stem. In general, avoid plants that have three leaves on a stem. Poison ivy’s leaves can vary greatly and the plant itself may look like a bush or a climbing vine. At times, poison ivy has small, green flowers and/or green or off-white berries. The oil you react to is called Urushiol, and it’s very sticky so it attaches to skin easily. If you think you may have been exposed, wash with soap and water immediately. Be sure to wash under your fingernails too.

What should I do if I get the rash?

Over-the counter corticosteroid creams, calamine lotion, creams containing menthol, and oral antihistamines can relieve various symptoms. Ask the pharmacist in your local drugstore for recommendations on what to buy. Soaking in a tub of cool water and using cool, wet compresses several times a day can also relieve discomfort. Generally, poison ivy rash goes away without treatment in one to three weeks.

Should I see a doctor?

Visit with your personal doctor if your reaction is severe, if it affects the eyes, mouth or genitals, if the blisters begin to ooze or have pus in them, or if you develop a fever. A doctor can prescribe antibiotics if you’ve developed a secondary infection and a higher-dosage oral corticosteroid (a steroid that helps reduce inflammation) if your rash is severe.

Dr. Terry Wolf is a family medicine physician at Sanford East Mandan Clinic. Dr. Wolf earned his medical degree at Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine in East Lansing, Mich., and completed his residency and internship at Sparrow Hospital Family Practice in Lansing, Mich. In his free time, he enjoys baseball, softball, camping, fishing, running and golf. To request an appointment with Dr. Wolf, call (701) 667-5000 or visit

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