What does a poison oak rash look like?
When you develop a rash on your body after spending time on the trails, it’s easy to point your finger at poison ivy. But poison oak also causes an intense red itchy rash, making it hard to know what’s really behind your misery.
Poison oak is a poisonous plant that can cause a reaction in people who have been in contact with urushiol, which is an oil it contains. Most people are allergic to urushiol, and almost everyone who touches it develops a rash, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).
“Urushiol, when touched, irreversibly binds to cells in your skin, causing allergic contact dermatitis,” says certified dermatologist Ife J. Rodney, MD, founding director of Eternal dermatology + Aesthetics in Maryland.
Fortunately, the treatment for poison ivy and poison ivy is similar, but it makes sense that you want to know what made your skin panic in the first place. Here, dermatologists explain what a poison oak rash looks like, and how to treat it if you’re unlucky enough to be exposed.
Poison oak vs poison ivy: what’s the difference?
Poison oak grows as a low shrub in parts of the eastern and southern United States, and in tall clumps or long vines on the west coast, according to the Food and drug administration (FDA). Poison oak usually has fuzzy green leaves in clusters of three that have scalloped edges with rounded tips. The plant can also produce yellow-white berries.
Poison ivy also contains urushiol, but is slightly different because of its appearance. It is found all over the United States except Alaska, Hawaii and parts of the West Coast, according to the FDA. It can grow like a vine or a small shrub trailing along the ground or be found climbing on low plants, trees and poles.
Poisonous sumac also has leaves grouped into three, but they are glossy with smooth or toothed edges, says the FDA. The leaves are reddish in spring, green in summer and yellow, orange or red in autumn. Poison ivy can even have greenish-white flowers and whitish-yellow berries.
What does a poison oak rash look like? And how long do the symptoms last?
The only way your doctor will know exactly which plant is behind your rash is if you’ve taken a photo of it or recognized the poison oak when you interacted with it, says. Gary Goldenberg, MD, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.
A rash from poison ivy “looks very similar or even the same” to a rash from poison ivy, he says. Both typically exhibit the following symptoms, which often take at least six weeks to resolve completely, depending on the severity:
- Bulbs filled with liquid
- Surrounding redness
- Intense itching
Is poison oak contagious?
It is actually a myth that poison ivy can be spread from person to person. “It’s not contagious or an infection,” confirms Dr. Rodney.
There is however a big caveat here: Urushiol can transfer to and linger on clothing, pets, gardening tools and other items that have come in contact with poison oak, sometimes for years, said Doris Day, MD, a certified dermatologist based in New York City. In fact, the FDA says the oil will stay on “virtually any surface” until washed off with water or rubbing alcohol.
With that in mind, Dr Rodney says that “there might be rare occasions” where you might come in contact with poison oak and then someone else immediately touches your skin and puts oil on it – even. However, once the oil dries on your skin, it cannot be transferred from person to person.
How to treat a poison oak rash
If you touch poison oak and make your goof right after, Dr Day recommends trying to wash the area with soap and water as soon as possible. “You have about 30 minutes to wash off the plant resin, which is found in the leaves, stems and bark of these plants,” she says. The sooner you can wash it off, the less severe your symptoms will be.
A rash will likely appear a few hours to a few days after exposure. Once it appears, there are a few things you can do to try and ease the symptoms:
- Apply an OTC hydrocortisone cream. It “can help suppress inflammation,” says Dr. Rodney. However, she says, most cases “will be much more serious than an over-the-counter cream can treat.”
- Dab Calamine lotion. Calamine lotion has drying properties and can help reduce the weeping and oozing from the blisters that can occur, says Dr. Goldenberg.
- Try a oatmeal bath. Pouring colloidal oatmeal in a lukewarm bath can help soothe the itching, says Dr. Day.
If you feel good you can just let it roll. But if you’re uncomfortable or the rash is anywhere near your eyes or face, Dr. Day says it’s time to call your doctor because “poison oak can cause exquisite itching “. They will likely prescribe an oral steroid to be taken for several weeks, as well as a prescription topical steroid to be used twice a day.
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