February 20, 2020

Health talk: Poison ivy dermatitis

It’s that time of year again when patient’s start clamoring for steroids to treat their poison ivy.

However, oral corticosteroids are not always appropriate for treating poison ivy dermatitis. Oral corticosteroids have significant side effects that can change your mood, increase your appetite and disrupt your sleep, as well as affect the metabolic processes in your body. If dosed incorrectly or taken for too short an interval, it can result in a “steroid flare” with the poison ivy dermatitis returning worse than it was originally.

Learn how to identify poison ivy and avoid it. It typically has clusters of three leaves, color can range from green to red, and it grows as vines, single stalks or shrubs. A Google search will provide images to improve your identification skills.

If you know you are going to be exposed to poison ivy, wear long clothing, although the resin from these plants can soak through clothes and come in contact with skin. Heavy duty vinyl gloves are the best option to avoid exposure.

After possible exposure wash all of your clothes (don’t forget your footwear) and clean any tools that may have been exposed to the resin with detergent. The resin can remain on objects for days and each time you contact it, you re-expose yourself to the allergen. Shower and wash with a mild detergent, such as Dial dishwashing detergent — we keep a bar of FELS-NAPTHA laundry soap in the shower and use it after any possible contact with these plants (commercial products are available but are more expensive).

The resin from poison ivy is highly allergenic. It typically takes 12-96 hours to develop a rash, with symptoms peaking between one and 14 days after exposure. Symptoms are redness and intense itching with development of raised bumps and vesicles, often in a linear pattern. The time to develop a rash and the severity of the rash depends on how much resin you were exposed to and the thickness of your skin. This is why people often think the rash is “spreading.” However, the liquid from the vesicles does not spread the rash, and it cannot be spread to someone else. You can continue to re-expose yourself if something has the resin on it, such as your clothes, garden tools or even your pets.

Treat symptoms with cool baths and calamine lotion. Popping blisters can be treated with Burrow’s solution. Contact your physician if you are concerned about secondary bacterial infection, or if the rash is severe, involves your face or genitals or if you do not improve after 2-3 weeks.

Medical treatment with high dose topical corticosteroids can relieve symptoms and shorten the course of the reaction. Oral corticosteroids may be prescribed if the rash is severe covering a significant portion of the body or if it is on the face or genitals. Once again, corticosteroids — topical and oral — can have significant side effects and are often only used in severe situation, so let’s try to prevent “the poison” this summer and avoid side effects of treatment.

Dr. Lara Kauffman is a board certified family physician at Carlisle Family Care. She graduated from Penn State College of Medicine in 2005 and has been practicing in Central Pennsylvania for the past five years.

Kauffman is one of five Carlisle Regional Medical Center staffers contributing to the weekly Health Talk column, to appear in The Sentinel every Sunday.

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Health talk: Poison ivy dermatitis

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