September 13th, 2010
11:41 AM ET

How can I get rid of poison ivy?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Mondays, it's pediatrician Jennifer Shu.

Question asked by Stephanie of Westchester County, New York: I have had recurring poison ivy on my face for a month. It went away but now it's back. I've tried a week of prednisone and am now using hydrocortisone cream. I would love to work in the yard but don't want to get it again. Any ideas? Thanks.

Expert answer:

Thanks for your question. The oil from plants such as poison ivy can cause an allergic skin reaction (called contact dermatitis) with symptoms such as itching, swelling, redness and blisters lasting for about two to four weeks. About 50 to 75 percent of people are allergic to poison ivy, and more than 25 million Americans seek medical treatment each year for this condition. Since you're having symptoms again, you may have come into contact with the poison ivy oil again. On the other hand, you may be having a skin reaction to something else that can cause similar symptoms (for example, sunscreen, lotion, makeup, etc.). It's also possible that you have a continuing reaction from the initial exposure that got better with oral prednisone but isn't all the way gone yet.

The oil from poison ivy (urushiol) can stick to skin, clothing, pets, and gardening tools so it's important to wash these off if contact is known to have occurred. It's especially helpful to clean under one's fingernails to remove any urushiol. Wearing heavy-duty vinyl gloves may help prevent future recurrences.

Soothing measures such as cool compresses, oatmeal baths and calamine lotion can help with itching. Treatment may also include oral antihistamines, over-the-counter or prescription-strength steroid creams, and oral steroids such as prednisone. Some people have frequent or severe enough rashes from poison ivy that they may benefit from allergy shots to prevent the reactions from happening again. It may be helpful to have allergy tests done if there's a chance you might be allergic to other plants, foods, animals, or more.

Please be sure to consult with your own doctor to get the best treatment for your situation. Good luck!

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.