Each week, OMRF Chief Medical Officer Dr. Judith James opens “Adam’s Journal” to answer a medical question from Adam Cohen, OMRF’s senior vice president & general counsel.
Here’s a question from a coworker:
My daughter and her husband were exposed to poison ivy in their backyard. My daughter required medical intervention, while my son-in-law’s reaction barely registered. What causes such different responses? If my daughter encounters poison ivy again, can she do anything to stop the rash?
Dr. James Prescribes
Poison ivy is part of a family of plants that contain an oily sap called urushiol. When this substance gets on our skin, it can lead to a red, itchy rash which is called an allergic contact dermatitis. In severe cases, it can result in blisters.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 90% of adults will develop a rash when exposed to trace amounts of urushiol. While some appear to remain non-reactive to the irritant for life, most people’s reactions build at each new exposure. If your daughter has had numerous exposures to poison ivy, it could explain her severe reaction. For those who’ve never had a rash from poison ivy, the American Academy of Dermatology notes it can take up to three weeks for one to develop.
The variation in reactions to poison ivy is primarily due to differences in our immune system responses. Some may require a higher concentration of urushiol to develop a reaction, while others may be more sensitive and experience symptoms with minimal exposure. Your DNA can also play a role, as differences in certain genes influence a person’s risk of contact dermatitis.
Because this exposure happened at your daughter’s home, she should consider keeping an over-the-counter poison ivy barrier product on hand. Applied like sunscreen or insect repellant, these lotions, gels and sprays have been shown to help shield the skin from poison ivy’s reach.
If your daughter is exposed to poison ivy again, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends immediately washing the affected skin with dishwashing soap, laundry detergent or rubbing alcohol and rinsing with cool water. Wash gently, as scrubbing can rub the sap into the skin, and clean underneath fingernails to remove any traces. Of course, it’s also important for her to learn to recognize poison ivy and avoid it.
Do you have a health query for Dr. James? Email email@example.com and your question may be answered in a future column!