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What Is Systemic Poison Ivy?

Nick Doniger
Nick Doniger

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.


A man with poison ivy blisters on his hand.
A man with poison ivy blisters on his hand.

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.

Using an oatmeal based lotion can soothe a poison ivy rash.
Using an oatmeal based lotion can soothe a poison ivy rash.

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.


Poison ivy.
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.

Diphenhydramine tablets, which can help with systemic poison ivy.
Diphenhydramine tablets, which can help with systemic poison ivy.

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.


One of the many symptoms of systemic poison ivy is swollen lymph nodes.
One of the many symptoms of systemic poison ivy is swollen lymph nodes.

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.

Poison ivy may cause severe itching.
Poison ivy may cause severe itching.

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? 

Children with poison ivy should wash their hands frequently to prevent infection.
Children with poison ivy should wash their hands frequently to prevent infection.

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. 

A systemic poison ivy rash may spread to areas of the body that had no direct contact with the plant.
A systemic poison ivy rash may spread to areas of the body that had no direct contact with the plant.

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.

Discussion Comments


Back in 1969 -1970, I had an allergic to poison that went systemic. It was a nightmare, my head was swollen twice the normal size and the itching and oozing was horrific. A dermatologist and an allergist worked together to help me. The dermatologist took a picture of my ear and the side of my face, they were oozing and swollen, my eyes swollen almost shut. Since then, there are times i just break out in areas that haven't been exposed. Sometimes its really bad. Rounds of steroids and antihistamines have to be given. Fortunately the doctors were up on it. Systemic infections are a nightmare and should be taken care of immediately.


Never had poison ivy until my forties. Knew what the leaves looked like but didn't realize the urishol can be released into the air from cutting the stems, roots and vines even in winter.

I have discovered from many bouts of severe rashes that heat is a great treatment, not a cure, for the itching. It is counterintuitive but works!

Run the hottest water you can tolerate, or heat from a hairdryer over the itchy rash areas. The itching will feel almost unbearable but keep at it for as long as you can-- 30 seconds to a minute. When done the itching will be gone for several hours. Enough to get a night's sleep.

The science behind this is that the histamines causing the itching will be released all at once by the high heat. Then it will take your body several hours to produce and release more histamines. Result? You are itch free for hours! Try it. It has saved me from going out of my mind.


At first I thought I had gotten swimmers itch,I go swimming a lot but I took a shower after. I have a big lump on my elbow and searched it up and swimmers itch can't have these so called lumps. So I had poison ivy. It has spread everywhere on my body including my entire back.


I have never had an allergic reaction to poison ivy or oak until this past two weeks. I do have terrible seasonal (all year) allergies so when something exacerbates them I usually try to find the culprit. After a couple of days of increased sinus congestion & drainage I managed to have my very first asthma attack at age 55! I thought it had resolved but the next day I was having full blown COPD symptoms with my oxygen levels dropping as low as 73% & I am not an O2 user. A friend supplied me with Albuterol nebulizers which got me through the weekend and on Tues. I tried to work 1/2 a day. Big mistake. By the end of the afternoon I was weak, lethargic, short of breath & so congested in my head that I had to breathe through my mouth plus an almost constant barking cough and unable to expel anything. I saw the Dr. the next day & he agreed that "something" had seriously aggravated my allergies. I was already taking Zyrtec D twice a day & OTC antihistamines to which he added Singulair daily, more nebulizer treatments, Prednisone and Mucinex.

On Saturday our builder, who is doing some new construction down the street, came by. He said he had been having the cough and congestion and was unable to sleep because of it. After hearing my plight he suddenly recalls that almost 2 weeks ago they had cut down and uprooted numerous (50+) trees covered with poison oak and ivy (which explained my first aggravating symptoms) but then, coinciding with the days I became much worse, he said they were burning those trees! This was releasing the urushiol into the and it became a respiratory threat to me!

Needless to say I burst into tears, partially from relief of finding out the cause and partially from all the overwhelming frustration. He had no idea this could happen and I had no idea it had been going on.

I'm going to inform my doctor of this tomorrow, just to make him aware of the possibility. Because of this systemic reaction, I will now be much more susceptible to any exposure to these plants, whether physically or airborne, and either way, they could be life threatening.

The unfortunate thing I'm finding is that there is very little online about the respiratory complications that can occur. We have 5 grandchildren, all of whom suffer some degree of seasonal allergies. I shudder to think what may have happened if any of them had been here when the burning was going on. Without my knowing about the release of the urushiol into the air and the effects of it they could all have been misdiagnosed and given improper treatment.


I can get systemic poison ivy just from the air. It seems to break out all over my body without even touching the plant. I have always needed a doctors help to clear it up. Recently just used Zanfel wash. It is amazing. Along with steroid pills and a shot I wash with Zanfel and have relief from itch for most of the day. It's expensive but well worth the money. I highly recommend it to anyone suffering with poison ivy.


I only have to be near poison ivy to get it. Three months of fighting it (doctors didn't help) sent me to searching the net. I found that apple cider vinegar helps dry it up, but smells foul. My best advice is astringent. Yes! For about $3 you can get more relief with a cotton ball dipped in astringent every hour (just dab it on) than with any other product. I pour some in a coffee cup and keep it beside me to use throughout the day. I'm very proactive about it and pour it all over after my shower. Wash bed linens, towels, pj's and clothes in Dawn dish washing liquid daily. It helps lift the oils out.

God bless anyone dealing with this issue. I know how stressful it can be. Not to mention all the work involved to get rid of it.

Head lice can be the same. Try a flea bomb along with the nit kit etc. and vacuum everything, then put stuffed animals in a bag and freeze for a week. Hope this gives some relief.


I have what I think is systemic poison ivy. Two rounds of prednisone haven't cured it, though while on, it provides relief. Should I be on the prednisone longer? I want to tear my skin off!


There is no such thing as "immunity" to poison ivy/oak. The rash/itching/etc. is an autoimmune reaction in which your body attacks the urushiol oil which has bonded to the skin as it would any other foreign invader. Some people's immune systems are less sensitive to the oil, but repeated exposure over a lifetime actually increases the chance that your body will react negatively to it.

Years ago, they tried exposing people to urushiol oil in small doses in an attempt to "cure" them of their sensitivity to it. The results were said to be disastrous.


I am currently suffering through my second systemic response to poison ivy. The first one happened in the early 80s, and I still have scars from it. Last week, I was determined to clear the privacy fence at the back corner of the yard behind the place we just moved into, and I wasn't careful in determining what the dead and living vines actually were. I could see morning glories in the trees right behind the fence and assumed that what they all were. Wrong! The dead ones were poison ivy that the previous residents had sprayed with a weed killer.(And there is still a large growth of living poison ivy behind the fence, waiting to get through again.)

I am now covered in a horrible itchy rash that even the most highly touted medical, natural and commercially available remedies are barely touching. I've finished my prednisone regimen---which has made me gain weight and feel wired without stopping the rash. I've taken so much Benadryl, I feel like a wired zombie. I've started on my second bar of poison ivy soap and my second bottle of jewel weed extract. Calamine didn't do anything.

I've been washing all my clothes [not just the ones I wore when I was handling those vines] with dish soap which releases the oil from the cloth and Windex which contains something that actually breaks down the urushiol. I've cleaned all the upholstered furniture to remove the urushiol from those items. I've bathed the dogs and bathed the dogs [and wash their bedding as I do my clothes].

The urushiol is still all over everything in the back yard, and the dogs touch it every time they go outside. What I need is a couple of days of good heavy rain to wash away the poison ivy dust, but we're in a prolonged drought, with some heavy restrictions on water use. By the way, for all those people who've used bleach to get rid of the urushiol, how did you make that work? When I tried that in the 80s, it didn't help but actually made things worse.


I had never had poison ivy previously, but my husband had been seriously reactive -- ER visits to cut his suit off after petting the dog, so I intended to pull out the ivy and get rid of it. I dressed in thick, old clothing from head to toe, covering everything but my face. I threw everything I was wearing away, then jumped in the shower to scrub -- just in case. Two hours later I was ill and four hours later, my face was swollen. By morning, my face was so swollen, my eyes were shut and we were at the doctor's office before it opened (not having urgent care and not wanting to go to the ER).

The doctor referred me to a dermatologist. By this time (later in the day), I was covered in blisters from head to toe. He explained that I had a systemic case -- that it was in my bloodstream. Other providers were ushered in to see me. I guess I was a unique case. I was on prednisone for six weeks (60mg and then gradually tapered off) and I reacted to it by getting insomnia. It was terrible.

I continued to break out with small blisters over the next six months on the palms of my hands, between my toes, on my arms, etc., but luckily not under my arms, genital area, buttocks or face blistering. The poison ivy is still in the yard and I pass it every day on the way to the car and I try to avoid even looking at it!


While setting traps in pocket gopher tunnels in the roadside at the edge of my property (they've wreaked havoc in my septic mound the last couple of years, so I have to stop them at first sight), I had direct, prolonged exposure to the plant roots (so much for being super careful not to touch anything above ground).

I rinsed well with cold water from the hose afterwards, and didn't give it much thought after that. The next day, my forearms began to break out in terrible rashes, and were covered with small to large blisters within four days. My midsection has scattered rash, as well. Calamine lotion seemed about worthless. Ivy Dry just made the itch worse from drying out the skin so completely. Baking soda soaks and pastes are a messy waste of time, and even Dawn dish soap not help, either. After five days of my worsening condition, and beginning to feel sick and lethargic, I finally visited a doctor. I was prescribed Prednisone in 60, 60, 60, 40 (done so far), 40, 40, 20, 20, 20, and started seeing/feeling relief after the first dose. The blisters have mostly subsided, the rash is slowly clearing and I feel much better. I expect to see scarring in areas that literally look like hot-metal burns, but should come out okay.

All that said, small spots keep showing up after over a week now, some in places where there was no chance at all I had oil/skin contact. The doctor and so much I've read online said it cannot go systemic, and only comes from the oil itself, but I just can't believe that. It would not keep showing up if that were the case.

I wiped down every last thing I could think of with Clorox wipes four days ago, in my vehicles, my home, garage and work – everything – like a lunatic, and am confident I nailed it all. Still, the spots and bumps keep a comin'. Not systemic, huh? I'm improving, but hope everything's gone, gone, gone by the time my Prednisone is, as that seems to be the key. I feel terrible for so many posters who seem to have it worse than me. Best wishes to you!

Loads of herbicide to spray soon!


Three months ago I had poison ivy on my wrist, above my gardening glove. Cortisone cream would heal it but it just came back. Two months ago I was found to have swollen lymph nodes. I have a rash over almost my entire body. The doctor would not run blood or scrape tests.

This week I went to the emergency room, and was given high doses of steroids for three weeks. It is so scary to see your entire body in welts and rashes. The itch is constant. Systemic poison ivy needs to be recognized by doctors as the danger that it is.


My eight year old daughter is on week four of a systemic poison ivy reaction. We have had her out of school for two weeks, to the urgent care and pediatricians office half a dozen times. She was prescribed a nine day round of oral prednisone combined with a strong antihistamine and a topical steroid only calmed it until the meds ran out. They won't give more steroids and just said she has to wait it out.

Meanwhile, she is being tortured, in agony, and has no quality of life, and neither do we. It looks better for a while, then flares up again. So far, it has reached every part of her body except the vaginal area. We are at our wits' end because the medical community is treating us like we are crazy hypochondriacs and tell us that PI cannot be systemic. They tell us that the rash that has consumed her poor little body is anything from herpes to bug bites. And if one more person tells us to wash her clothes or sheets, I will lose it.

Are there any real poison ivy specialists out there? I seem to know far more than any doctors I have taken my child to. Also, at two years old we found that she had a severe reaction to mango juice. It is in her medical record, when we took her in because the hives had swollen her eyes shut and her tongue outside her mouth. Apparently, all the doctors I have visited had no idea mangoes and poison ivy were related.

I beg the pediatricians of the world to learn about hyperallergic reactions to poison ivy. No child should have to suffer like mine has for a month now.


I have tears in my eyes after reading through the posts above. Yes, because I am presently having a systemic reaction. Thankfully, it is not extreme, but nonetheless bad enough that I have become an expert on internet info over past week.

Our two Jersey acres are infested with these plants. They even climb up the sides of the house. But I never gave it much thought. I just avoided them.

Now there are three bottles of rubbing alcohol and rags left near the door, sink, etc. for cleaning and re-cleaning everything from hands to doorknobs, tools, cellphones, steering wheels, sneakers, remotes... (think and think again- what do we touch? Where might we find this plaguey oil which is reactive down to the micro-nano level? Bizarre stuff, for real. And I read only humans are allergic to it? how can that be? Maybe the military should explore it for weaponry potential.

Yes, I will finally try Zanfel and see a doc for maybe prednisone and injections. Tomorrow.

But my worst relevant nightmare is how to eliminate these plants (sumac too) without resorting to the likes of the (odious) Round-Up herbicide?

Horrors! We live on a creek, around much rare and already threatened wildlife. Oh God, I can't write anymore (Boiling water?)


In response to the poster who suffered for a month and advised drinking water, I would strongly suggest not following his advice. Drinking copious amounts of water when having a systemic allergic reaction can cause kidney failure. Instead, what you should do is get right to your doctor and get a course of Prednisone. You will feel better within a matter of hours, and be symptom free in a day or two.

I pulled up some poison ivy by the vine last summer and had a systemic reaction. My initial rash on my arms suddenly blew up my entire body overnight, with fever and extreme swelling of my hands, feet and face. Within four hours of my first Prednisone dose, the swelling was gone, and 80 percent of the rash as well. The next day I just had the itchy spots on my arms remaining, which vanished on the second dose.


I had a really severe systemic reaction as a kid. The dermatologist gave me steroids and a medication made over the counter by Bayer called Domeboro. Domeboro is like a miracle drug! You mix the powder in tap water and with cloths or large gauze dressings, soak them in the liquid and place over affected areas and it dries the areas out. It's a thousand times better than calamine lotion!


One homeopathic treatment is Rhus Tox, which is at 30 times and found in health food stores. I am trying it. I have had poison ivy/oak/sumac reaction before and have done the shot at doctor. I decided this time to see if this works. I am on the second dose so far. I'm not sure if it is systemic, but seems like it might be about to be, if not already in the early stages.

I first broke out about a week ago after cutting some weeds and vines. I was trying to be careful, but didn't wash soon enough, and also had some scrapes and scratches. The worst place is on the bottom of my wrist. It is oozing constantly! It may be somewhat better now, but some other places are showing a rash. We will see.


This summer I was the reluctant recipient of a systemic poison ivy infection. There seems to be some controversy about whether it can be systemic. The answer is a resounding yes. If you come in contact with the vine oil, which is 100 times more potent than the leaf oil, you will more than likely have a systemic reaction.

I discovered this phenomenon when I trimmed what looked like English ivy from a friend's building. The next day I was shocked to find that I had some small welts, and when I returned to the scene of the trimming, I was horrified to discover it was poison ivy.

To make a long story short, the initial areas affected were my arms, and after I tried everything, I realized that areas that had not been in direct contact were beginning to be affected as well. The infection had gone systemic and spread to my torso, legs, genitalia and even the anus. Ouch! I was drinking as much water as I could and showering, and wrapping my arms as they were the worst affected. I could feel the oil in my urine when I evacuated, so that was nice.

The reason I am positive it was systemic is that the lymph nodes all over my body were swollen and hard like marbles. The swelling at times was so extreme that the skin appeared to be cracking and it hurt from the inside out in the connective tissue, i.e., tendons and ligaments.

It took about a month for this ordeal to finally subside. However now in September, I am experiencing a secondary reinfection. As the Urishiol continues to slowly leave my body, it is affecting other areas like my face, neck and chest that did not initially become infected. More fun, it is even trying to escape from around my eye sockets and affecting my vision at times as they try to cleanse themselves of the oil being released. All in all, it has been a harrowing experience, one for the ages as a doctor friend of mine says.

It is still indurated or trapped in the skin on my arms without any sign of letting go any time soon.

My suggestion to anyone who experiences this type of infection would be to drink as much water as possible, wash twice a day and wrap the oozing areas with gauze at least twice a day to ensure a clean healing process. Or even better, avoid this plant at all costs! Cheers and good luck! --Jon


I pulled some poison ivy, but didn't think much of it since it never bothered me before. Then later, I cut my finger, pressed on it to stop the bleeding, and continued working in yard for hours. Two days later, my hands and feet were swollen and I had a rash on my right arm, as well. I went to doctor and she thought I was just dehydrated, She would not even treat me for poison ivy because they squeezed me into the schedule, and two days later I had swollen face and lips.

The lab results after my first visit showed a slightly low blood platelet count. I believe all the swelling and low blood count was due to a systemic reaction of poison ivy getting into my cut, but the doctor disagrees. I am re-testing soon to be sure nothing is wrong. I think the doctor just doesn't want to admit she made a mistake not treating me for poison ivy the first time.


Bleach! It works when prednisone does not. Get in bath water and put a few cups of bleach (2 or more depending on how much water), and enjoy itching yourself. When you get out, use a cottonball with bleach to dab the parts that are exposed once again. Poison Ivy has a similar structure of oil as WD40, so not many things kill it. This is why something powerful is needed such as bleach. And it's cheaper too. Take it from a mom with seven kids who battled it for years.


I feel bad for these posters. I got a systemic poison ivy reaction a couple weeks ago after getting exposed on my hands and wrists.

I felt awful. I had fever, nausea, head to toe rash, feet and my hands were painfully swollen. However prednisone at 40, 30, 30, 20, 20, 10, 10 knocked it out. In fact, within hours of the 40mg dose, at least 50 percent of the rash vanished, my appetite came back and my hands and feet were noticeably less swollen. By the second day at 30mg I was 100 percent recovered. I can't imagine fighting it for weeks or months.


I've been fighting a poison ivy system reaction for eight 1/2 weeks, I'm on my third round of prednisone and it's still spreading. I ended up having to go to emory dermatology where they took a biopsy. the results should be back soon.

i haven't been able to work all week, and the rash is all body consuming except my feet. Does anyone have any ideas?


I just wanted to add that it is correct to not use hot water immediately after exposure. However, if you do get the rash, the next day you can use hot water.

Sometimes, the heat actually seems to help the pain. I have even used a hairdryer on low heat to soothe the rash.


If you know that you have been exposed to poison ivy, you should, as soon as possible, rinse with cold water. You can use a garden hose if you are outside.

Don’t use hot water to shower or rinse with because it will open your pores and allow the oil to absorb in your skin


What is the best way to treat poison ivy?


@medicchristy: Some people seem to have immunity to poison ivy. For many years, I had been around poison ivy and never had a reaction. A couple of weeks ago, I was weed eating and got into some poison ivy. I broke out horribly.

It was so bad that I ended up going to the doctor. He told me that people can lose their immunity to certain things as they get older.


Do you have to be allergic to poison ivy to have a reaction? I am sure I have come across poison ivy several times in my life but I've never had any kind of reaction. My son, however, was around it a couple of weeks ago and almost broke out instantly.

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