P a t i e n t
E d u c a t i o n
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Poison ivy What is poison ivy? A common plant that grows throughout the United States, poison ivy contains an oil called urushiol that can cause an itchy allergic skin rash. Two similar plants, poison oak and poison sumac, contain the same oil. Urushiol is found in all parts of the plant—leaves, stems, roots, and berries—and in dead plants as well as live ones. You can get the oil on your skin by: • touching any part of the plant, or touching clothing or gardening tools that have come in contact with the plant. • touching pets that have come in contact with the plant. • coming in contact with the smoke if someone is burning the plant. This is especially dangerous because breathing the smoke can cause serious breathing problems. An itchy or burning red rash appears on skin 4 hours to 4 days after contact with the plant’s oil. Your skin may swell. A day or so later, the small red bumps will turn into blisters, which may ooze clear fluid. What should I do if I touch a poisonous plant? As soon as possible, wash your skin gently with soap and cool water to remove the oil. Rinse frequently. Be sure to scrub under your fingernails. Also remove and wash your clothes in hot water with detergent. Clean shoes and any tools that may have touched the plant with rubbing alcohol or soap and water. Wear disposable gloves when cleaning these items. Once you see a rash, you can use calamine lotion, oatmeal baths, and cool, wet compresses to soothe the itching. Other products are also available. Ask your pharmacist or healthcare provider for advice on what to use. Poison ivy isn’t contagious, so contact with another person won’t spread the rash. The rash and itching usually go away in about 2 weeks. Continue treating the rash until it clears up. Call your healthcare provider if: • the rash covers a large part of your body or affects your genitals, face, mouth, or throat. • you have a fever over 100° F (37.8° C). • you see pus from the blisters.
Identifying poison ivy, oak, and sumac Poison ivy is more common east of the Rocky Mountains. It has three leaflets per leaf with flowering branches on a single stem. The plants produce a green or off-white fruit in the fall. Sometimes, black dots form on the plants’ leaves. Poison oak is more common west of the Rocky Mountains. It also has three leaflets per leaf with flowering branches on a single stem. Poison sumac grows in wet areas of the Southeast. It has five, seven, or more leaflets per leaf that angle up toward the top of the stem.
• your skin continues to swell. • the rash doesn’t get better after a few days. If your face and throat begin to swell, you have trouble breathing, or you feel dizzy or lightheaded, call 911. How can I prevent problems? The best way to avoid getting a rash from poison ivy, oak, or sumac is to stay away from them. Know what poisonous plants are found in your area and learn to recognize them. Be aware that their appearance can change with the seasons. Never handle these plants without wearing vinyl gloves. Wear protective clothing when you’re outdoors, including gloves, long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and boots. Wash your hands well when you come in from outside. Bathe pets that may have come in contact with the plants. Wash any clothes, tools, and camping, hunting, and sporting gear that may have the plant oil on them. If you live in an area that has a lot of these plants, you can apply over-the-counter creams and ointments that can prevent the oil from getting on your skin. ■ DOI-10.1097/01.NURSE.0000446629.40220.38
This patient-education guide has been adapted for the 6th-grade level using the Flesch-Kinkaid formula. It may be photocopied for clinical use or adapted to meet your facility’s requirements. Selected references are available upon request.
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