Doctor Tips: How to treat poison ivy, oak, sumac–and what to have just in case

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

The following is for information only.  Everyone has unique qualities or diseases that might affect treatment and healing.  Contact your personal health-care provider for specific advice.  These are generalized tips that may help until then.  I would love to hear additional ones from you.

First-aid supplies to have on hand for skin ailments:

  • Adhesive bandages of various sizes.
  • Tape. Any will do—even duct tape.  Of course, if you’ve had past skin reactions to tape, have plenty of hypoallergic or paper tape available.  Ideally, have several widths—or get a wide one and just tear it lengthwise to fit your need.
  • Gauze. Get a pack of non-sterile and some sterile nonstick.
  • Butterfly bandages or Steri-Strips.
  • Antibiotic ointment for cuts, scratches or breaks in the skin.
  • Hydrocortisone ointment, large tube, to treat skin inflammation, itching or irritation.  Not useful for cuts.  Use sparingly and not over one week on the face or two weeks elsewhere because it may start thinning your skin.

Other good items to have, but not essential:

  • Peroxide for cleaning wounds
  • Cotton-tip applicators for cleaning wounds or applying topicals (never for cleaning ears).
  • Aloe vera plant. The gel inside the leaf soothes about any superficial burn or rash.  Just break off a leaf near the bottom of the plant; take a knife and split it open; make multiple superficial horizontal and vertical cuts to get the gel out, and apply directly.
  • Domeboro tablets or powder.
  • Super glue (to make the tape stick better, not for gluing the wound shut).


Almost any plant can can cause skin irritation.  Some cause allergic reactions, with poison ivy, oak and sumac being most common.

1. Avoid the plants—including stems!

Know what they look like.  Beware of any plant with three leaves.  One problem is they’re just as allergic in the winter, when there’s only a twig with no leaves, since the sap contains as much of the active allergen, urushiol, as the leaves.  Even if you’ve never had a reaction, you can potentially become allergic with any touch.

2. Stop the rash before it starts.

The itchy rash starts about 24 to 48 hours after contact.  If it’s your first reaction, it may take as long as two weeks to break out.  The rash lasts two to three weeks or longer.  If you can wash the urushiol off within an hour—four at the most—you may not have a reaction.  Rubbing alcohol or soap and water will do.  Be sure to wash your clothes and anything else that may have come in contact.

3. Treat the rash as best you can.

  • Starting prescription oral steroids, like prednisone,  within 24 hours of the reaction may abate it, but if it’s been longer than that, it usually has to run its course.
  • If there are blisters or breaks in the skin, keep the area clean, cover it if needed and apply antibiotic ointment.  Infection is the main danger since the miserable rash will eventually fade.  The fluid in the blisters will not cause further rash.

Tips to relieve the itching.

  • Use a steroid cream and keep the area cool.
  • An oral antihistamine like Benadryl may help.
  • Try soaking a cloth in a cool solution of Domeboro  mixed with water.   Apply for 15 to 30 minutes every two hours or so.  If you don’t have Domeboro, you can dilute a white vinegar solution down to about one percent acetic acid with water.  It’s not difficult and you don’t have to be exact.  If the ingredients say five percent acetic acid, just add five parts water to one part vinegar.  Soak a cloth and apply as needed.

If anyone can add advice, please do.

Next post is on treating cuts.

Doctors and business owners: Send customized issues of James Hubbard’s My Family Doctor to your customers or patients. E-mail for details.

As with all information on this site, this article cannot replace professional, personal medical advice. Read more here.

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10 Responses to “Doctor Tips: How to treat poison ivy, oak, sumac–and what to have just in case”

  1. This Is How To Cure Allergic Reactions > Health and Fitness > Front Page Articles - Article Directory Says:

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  2. Mark Says:

    Fantastic tips! Printing this one out! Thanks!

  3. Sagan Says:

    Love aloe vera. We always had a big plant when I was growing up and every time I’d get a scrape, I’d head straight to the plant to be soothed! I need to get another one of those plants…

    Sagans last blog post..Life Lessons: Learning how to cook

  4. James Hubbard Says:

    Thanks Mark. Hope it helps.

    Sagan, Aloe vera is good for so many things.

    James Hubbards last blog post..How to Help a Loved One: depression, alcoholism, addiction …

  5. James Hubbard’s My Family Doctor Blog » Blog Archive » When to see the doctor for cuts, puncture wounds and foreign bodies. Plus, home treatment. Says:

    [...] HomeMedical TopicsAsk the Doctor!Meet the ExpertsRecipesBlogVideos « Doctor Tips: How to treat poison ivy, oak, sumac–and what to have just in case [...]

  6. Judy Rodman Says:

    This is incredible… everyone needs to print this out and keep it!

    Judy Rodmans last blog post..I"m Speaking at Indie Connect Monday night, April 6th

  7. jhubbard Says:

    Thanks Judy.

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