Since the only way to truly get rid of poison ivy is by waiting it out, the best plan for dealing with PI is prevention. Once the rash-causing urushiol oil attaches to your skin, it is exceptionally difficult to remove.
Additionally, since you can not see the oil, it is easy to spread it around, making it possible to recontaminate yourself many days or even weeks later! In fact, this contributions to the myth that you can catch poison ivy from others, or that it spreads by itching.
The truth is a bit more subtle – think of it like wet paint. If you have it on your hands, you can spread it to other people, or onto a door knob. Others can then touch the door knob and get it on themselves! Or you can touch the door knob after you cleaned your hands, and now you have it on you again! Scratch that itchy stomach now, and you have it in your belly button!
If all the paint is dry or cleaned up, then it will not spread anymore – even if you can see where the paint once was. Ie, just because there is rash it does not mean you have any more urushiol oil to spread around. But unlike paint, urushiol oil does not just dry out. In fact it can hang around and cause rash years after coming off the plant.
Use these tips to prevent getting a rash to begin with!
- Learn what poison ivy looks like! There are many similar plants, but once you know what to look for it's easy to spot the bad guys.
- Cover your skin. If you are hiking through the woods, or even just trimming tall grass and weeds around your property, wear long pants and long sleeves. If you want to be extra careful, tuck your pant legs into your socks (this will keep out the ticks, too!)
- Use a preventative lotion When you go head-to-head with poison ivy, either walking through a field of it or trying to remove the vines from inside your shrubs, apply a lotion like Ivy Block or another similar product first (usually at least 15 minutes before contact, but read the directions on the bottle of course!) These kinds of creams work by soaking into the skin and forming a temporary barrier that keeps the urushiol from attaching to you.
- Beware – the oils may still transfer from you to other surfaces, and then back to you long after the blocking lotions have been washed off! Which brings us to the last and most important point:
- Wash, wash, wash! Use lots of cool, soapy water as soon as you can if you think you've touched the plant in any way. Make sure you use soap! The rash causing agent, urushiol, is indeed an oil. It comes in small quantities so your skin probably will not feel oily, but it is! Water without soap will spread it. So, use soap – the stronger the better.
- Remember to remove your rings or other jewelry before you wash. If you get some of the oils underneath, you will not be able to fully clean it!
Once you have finished cleaning yourself, you still are not done. If you want to truly make sure you will not get the rash, you need to retrace your steps. Find any door knob, tool, hose, counter top, faucet, or light switch you may have touched before you managed to get clean.
Use rubbing alcohol and a disposable rag to wipe down all the surfaces you can. Be as thorough as you can! Since urushiol can last for years without breaking down, you could quite easily come into contact with the oils months later and get poison ivy in the middle of the winter **
* I have first hand experience with this! Forgot to take off my wedding band, and the oil was rubbed into my finger over the course of a few days. When the rash appeared, I could not get my ring off!
** I did this too ..