Systemic poison ivy is an extreme allergic reaction to the urushiol oil found in a poison ivy plant. Unlike a typical reaction to poison ivy, which causes a localized rash to appear on the skin where contact took place, a systemic reaction is one that is not isolated to one area. These rashes may spread all over the body, including to areas that had no direct contact with the plant. This condition can be life-threatening, but there are treatments available.
People can develop systemic poison ivy by coming into contact with something that has urushiol on it. This can be anything that's touched a poison ivy, oak, or sumac plant, like clothing or pets. Mowing over these plants can cause little pieces of them to become airborne, which can spread the urushiol even further. Even dead plants or items that touched poison ivy a long time ago should be avoided, as the oil can remain active on any surface for years. Once the urushiol goes through the top layer of the skin, it bonds with a type of white blood cell called Langerhan's cells, and from there can spread throughout the body.
Along with direct contact with the plant, a systemic reaction to poison ivy may be also be caused by smoke inhalation. If a tree stump or other type of plant material laden with poison ivy is burned, the smoke produced is extremely dangerous to humans. Once urushiol enters the lungs via smoke, it can cross into the bloodstream, causing blisters and rashes to cover the entire body. Even the mouth and throat are often affected in especially severe cases of systemic poison ivy.
Initially, someone with systemic poison ivy will notice scattered itchy rashes on the skin, which appear a few days after exposure to urushiol. If rashes are still appearing in new places four days after the first patch appeared, then a person most likely is having a systemic reaction. Other symptoms include headaches, nausea, swollen lymph nodes, swollen joints, and a fever. Patients who inhaled urushiol-laden smoke may also experience difficulty breathing.
During the final stage of the condition, the rashes will turn into blisters, which may ooze for several weeks. Though the blisters themselves do not contain urushiol, and are not contagious, they still shouldn't be popped, as this can lead to an infection. If the blisters are on delicate places like eyes or genitals, or they cover between 15 to 30% of the body, a person should seek medical attention.
Any person who suspects systemic poison ivy reaction should seek medical attention. A doctor will most likely prescribe steroid injections, starting the patient at a fairly high dose which gradually tapers off over the course of a few weeks. Antihistamines and over-the-counter medications, such as diphenhydramine, may also be taken to ease breathing and relieve discomfort. In severe cases, hospitalization may be required.
Doctors typically recommend that extra steps be taken in treating systemic poison ivy cases involving children, as they are frequently unable to resist scratching the lesions. Loose, lightweight cotton clothing is recommended to cover the rash and restrict the child's access while allowing air to reach the skin. Cold or lukewarm water can be used to make oatmeal baths to reduce itching as well, but hot water should be avoided, as this can actually increase itching. To reduce the possibility of infection if the child does scratch, his or her fingernails should be trimmed short and his or her hands should be washed frequently.
How Long Does Urushiol Last on the Skin?
Urushiol is the oil that causes reactions in poison ivy. It creates boils and itchiness in the skin and can become infected. If the person is especially susceptible, systemic poison ivy might become an issue. However, the urushiol compound can be washed off the skin.
If you come in contact with poison ivy, wash all affected areas immediately. Change your clothes and put them in the washer. However, ensure that the clothes are washed multiple times. Run the washer at least twice before using the dryer - if any oil is left on the clothes, it could contaminate the dryer and cause further issues.
Urushiol can last for months or even years on a surface. It quickly soaks into your skin but can keep affecting you for several days. If you know that you have come in contact with poison ivy, the goal is to wash the oils off within five minutes of the first contact. Wash your clothes as soon as possible and clean your skin completely by taking a shower.
When To See a Doctor With Poison Ivy Symptoms
If you are suffering from poison ivy, it might be tempting to go to the doctor immediately with your symptoms. However, poison ivy isn’t life-threatening. Even mild cases of systemic poison ivy will probably not harm you in the long run.
However, if you have any of the following symptoms, you should call your doctor as soon as possible, before the symptoms worsen. Monitor symptoms closely and keep your doctor up to date, especially if you need medication. Here are the symptoms to look out for:
- Difficulty breathing
- Extremely widespread rash
- Continued swelling
- A high fever
- Rash on genitals, eyes, or mouth
- Oozing blisters (with colored liquids or pus)
- A rash that lasts longer than two or three weeks
Whether your poison ivy is systemic or in one place, these symptoms are dangerous. At the very least, calling a doctor to get a prescription for a round of antibiotics might help keep the swelling and itching down.
How To Get Rid of Poison Ivy Plants
Of course, it’s better to get rid of poison ivy plants before they cause an issue than to find out the hard way. If you or a family member is susceptible to systemic poison ivy, you should look into a proper exterminator.
If you choose to get rid of poison ivy plants yourself, you should do it carefully. Wear gloves and use clippers so you don’t spray the oils everywhere. It’s essential to avoid urushiol, even when wearing gloves.
To remove poison ivy plants, clip the stems right above the ground. However, you have to also pull the roots out. Dig carefully at least three inches underneath the plant before pulling it out, and discard the entire plant in environmentally safe lawn bags.
There are also ways to get rid of poison ivy without digging it up. You can use homemade or store-bought plant killers to destroy the ivy from the roots. It’s crucial to completely root out the ivy, or else it will come back and be stronger than before. Whether you dig out the ivy or use plant killer, ensure that it’s gone before planting anything, and always wear gloves around it.
What Is the Difference Between Systemic Poison Ivy and Poison Sumac?
Poison ivy and poison sumac are two different plants, but both have the same oils. Although the plants look different, both of them will cause the same reaction. However, many experts agree that poison sumac is actually stronger in allergic reactions than poison ivy or its lesser cousin, poison oak.
Sumac has bunches of small, dark red berries and long thin green leaves. Unlike poison ivy, sumac can grow places farther away from deep woods or swamps. If birds pick up the berries and spread the seeds, poison sumac can spread much more quickly than poison ivy.
If you can tell the difference between poison oak, poison sumac, and poison ivy, you are much more likely to avoid getting a rash or a systemic rash. Each type of poisonous plant has the same oil and will cause allergic reactions. They should all be avoided.