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What Is Systemic Poison Ivy?

A man with poison ivy blisters on his hand.
Using an oatmeal based lotion can soothe a poison ivy rash.
Poison ivy.
One of the many symptoms of systemic poison ivy is swollen lymph nodes.
Diphenhydramine tablets, which can help with systemic poison ivy.
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  • Originally Written By: Nick Doniger
  • Revised By: Donna Johnson
  • Edited By: J.T. Gale
  • Last Modified Date: 19 March 2014
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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.

Causes

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.

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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.

Symptoms

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.

Treatment

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.

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Discuss this Article

anon356294
Post 17

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.

anon346170
Post 16

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.

anon343289
Post 15

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?)

anon334518
Post 14

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.

anon322904
Post 13

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!

anon293631
Post 11

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.

anon291220
Post 10

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

anon284933
Post 9

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.

anon280949
Post 8

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.

anon277329
Post 7

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.

anon175412
Post 6

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?

BoatHugger
Post 5

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.

dega2010
Post 4

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

CarrotIsland
Post 3

What is the best way to treat poison ivy?

GardenTurtle
Post 2

@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.

medicchristy
Post 1

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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