Updated 18 May 2017

Managing poison ivy exposure

You may enjoy working in the garden but be careful of poison ivy - it can cause a painful allergic reaction.

Poison ivy is a common outdoor hazard, but there are a number of ways to prevent exposure and reduce your suffering if you do come into contact with these plants, an expert says.

In South Africa, African Poison Ivy (Smodingium argutum) is the most common cause of allergic contact dermatitis, an article published by the South African Medical Journal explains.

Oils in the plant's leaves, roots and vines get into the skin almost immediately after contact and bind with proteins, causing an immune system reaction that leads to extreme itchiness.

"If there's a risk for exposure, wear long pants, long sleeves, gloves and boots," Rene Miller from the Tennessee Poison Centre at Vanderbilt University Medical Centre said. But she noted that rubber gloves won't protect you because the plant oils are soluble in rubber and will get through the gloves to your skin.

It's also important to remember that you can get the itch-inducing oils from clothes and pets that have had contact with the plants.

If your skin comes into contact with these plant oils, wash as quickly as possible with soap and lukewarm water.

"If you wash within the first 15 minutes after exposure, 100 percent of the oils can be washed away. If you wait an hour, zero percent can be washed away," Miller said.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the following are symptoms of poison ivy exposure:

- Red, itchy skin

- Hives (urticaria)

- Outbreak of blisters

- Swelling

A rash caused by poison ivy typically appears within 24 to 28 hours, but can appear sooner or later. If you do develop a rash, there are a number of things you can do to be more comfortable.

"Once an exposure has occurred, topical steroids and antihistamines are the mainstay for treatment," Miller said.

"Prescription cortisone can halt the reaction if used early. Unfortunately, once the vesicular stage [with small, fluid-filled blisters] has started, treatment with systemic steroids is the only effective solution. Oatmeal baths and cool showers may also be helpful," she said.

Read more:

Allergy skin test

Diagnosing allergies

Food allergies and atopic dermatitis

Image: Foliage of an African poison ivy in the Pretoria National Botanical Garden, South Africa courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


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Dr Morris is the Principal Allergist at the Cape Town and Johannesburg Allergy Clinics with postgraduate diplomas in Allergology, Dermatology, Paediatrics and Family Medicine dealing with both adult and childhood allergies.

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