How to Tell the Difference Between Shingles & Poison Ivy

Shingles and poison ivy are conditions that affect the skin. They both cause rashes that can look very similar, so people often wonder how to tell the difference. Even though the rashes look much the same, their causes, treatments, and prevention are different.

This article discusses the shingles and poison ivy rashes, focusing on symptoms and key differences.

Skin rash on arm from poison ivy plant. Poison ivy blisters on human arm from gardening outdoors.

Jena Ardell / Getty Images

Shingles Rash vs. Poison Ivy Rash

Though their rashes can appear similarly, shingles and poison ivy rashes have some distinct differences.

Shingles

Shingles is a reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus that causes chickenpox. It is characterized by a painful rash that produces blisters on the skin. The area of skin can burn, tingle, or itch before the rash appears, but generally, shingles is known for producing a painful rash with blisters.

Typically, the rash shows up in a single area of the body—often on the torso—and creates a stripe or a band along the body. This line occurs because shingles is a viral rash that affects nerves under the skin.

Can Shingles Be Everywhere on the Body?

It is very rare for a person to have widespread shingles all over the body. This usually only occurs in people who are immunocompromised (having a weakened immune system, making them less able to fight off infections).

Poison Ivy

Poison ivy is a plant with leaves that contain an oil that causes an allergic reaction on the skin.

The poison ivy rash is a form of contact dermatitis. It occurs in areas of the skin where people are exposed to poison ivy.

A person can also spread the toxic oil from one part of the body to another by scratching. Therefore, the rash can appear anywhere on the body.

A poison ivy rash looks like small red bumps and blisters with skin swelling. It is incredibly itchy.

Other Plants Like Poison Ivy

Other plants also carry the same toxin as poison ivy, including poison oak and poison sumac.

Additional Shingles Symptoms

One of the best ways to differentiate shingles from the poison ivy rash is by evaluating other associated symptoms. Since shingles is a viral rash, people will sometimes have other symptoms, such as:

  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Upset stomach
  • Body aches
  • Malaise (general feeling of being unwell)

In addition, people with shingles often have a burning pain under the skin before the rash appears.

Overall, shingles is more painful than poison ivy.

Complications of Shingles

People can develop complications with shingles, the most common being postherpetic neuralgia. Postherpetic neuralgia is chronic pain in the area of the rash.

Additional Poison Ivy Symptoms

While the poison ivy rash is incredibly itchy, it is not associated with other systemic symptoms. It is also not as painful as shingles.

Shingles and Poison Ivy Causes

Though they can present similarly, shingles and poison ivy have different causes.

Shingles 

Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox.

As a baby or small child, you might have had chickenpox. The virus stays in your body throughout your lifetime and can reemerge when you are older as shingles.

Typically, people have only one episode of shingles in a lifetime. Triggers for reactivation include stress, infection, and certain medications.

Anyone who has had chickenpox can develop shingles, but it is most common in people over age 50. Other groups of people who are at higher risk of developing shingles include:

  • People with certain cancers
  • People who take immunosuppressive medications
  • People with immune system conditions like human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

How Common Is Shingles?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one out of every three people will develop shingles at some point.

Poison Ivy 

Anyone who works and plays in outdoor environments can develop poison ivy. The plant is found everywhere in the United States except in Alaska and Hawaii but is mainly found in the East and Midwest. Poison oak is common on the West Coast and southeastern United States, while poison sumac tends to grow in the eastern and southern states, in wet and wooded areas.

Often, people associate poison ivy with forests and trail areas, but it can even be found in your backyard, too.

Treatment and Seeking Care

Shingles requires treatment with prescription antiviral medication and sometimes prescription pain medicine. If you think you have a shingles rash, you should see a healthcare provider.

Shingles Vaccination

An effective vaccine, Shingrix, is available to help prevent shingles. It is recommended for people age 50 and older.

People can manage contact dermatitis from poison ivy at home. Typically, treatments include:

  • Soothing calamine lotions and steroid creams like hydrocortisone
  • Oral antihistamines (e.g., Benadryl)
  • Placing cool compresses on the affected area

Though it will be difficult to avoid scratching the rash since it's so itchy, it's important to not scratch a poison ivy rash. Scratching can lead to infection.

When determining the cause of your rash, consider what other symptoms you have and whether you had any recent exposures. Also, remember that shingles is pretty painful.

If you are unsure about the cause of your rash, it is always wise to seek medical evaluation.

Key Differences Between Shingles and Poison Ivy
  Shingles Rash of Poison Ivy
Cause Varicella-zoster virus (the same virus that causes chickenpox) Contact with the oil on the leaves of the poison ivy plant (or poison oak or poison sumac)
Characteristics Painful, burning blisters that become ulcers in a band-like distribution Itchy, red bumps and blisters anywhere on the body
Symptoms Chills, headache, body aches, upset stomach Itchiness
Treatment Antiviral medication and pain medicine Calamine lotion, oatmeal bath, hydrocortisone cream, oral antihistamine
Prevention Vaccination Wearing long clothing in wooded areas

Summary

The rashes that result from shingles and poison ivy can look very similar, as they both lead to blisters on the skin. However, it's important to distinguish them since their treatment is very different.

Shingles is a painful rash usually in one area of the body. It often occurs in people over age 50 and has associated systemic symptoms. The rash of poison ivy (contact dermatitis) is very itchy and can occur in people of any age on any part of the body when the skin is exposed to the poison ivy plant.

Poison ivy can usually be treated at home without any major medical intervention. However, if you think you may have shingles, see your healthcare provider to discuss treatment options.

A Word From Verywell

It can be challenging to know the cause of a rash and whether you need to see a healthcare provider. When comparing shingles and contact dermatitis from poison ivy, consider whether you have been recently exposed to a poisonous plant. Furthermore, evaluate whether you also feel achy and feverish, suggesting a viral infection instead. If you are still unsure about your rash, talk to a healthcare provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does shingles look like poison ivy?

    Shingles and contact dermatitis from poison ivy look alike since they lead to small blisters. They are different in that shingles is very painful and the rash is located to one part of the body. In contrast, the rash of poison ivy is incredibly itchy, with less pain, and can be found anywhere on the body.

  • What else can look like poison ivy?

    The rash from poison ivy is contact dermatitis, an allergic reaction to a substance placed on the skin. People can also develop contact dermatitis from:

    • Detergent
    • Soaps and hand sanitizers
    • Fertilizers
    • Solvents, paints, or glues
    • Gasoline
    • Acidic foods

    Other diseases that can look similar to contact dermatitis include eczema, psoriasis, and fungal skin infections.

  • Should you pop poison ivy blisters?

    In general, you should not attempt to pop blisters. Popping a blister with your hands or a household tool can introduce bacteria under the skin and lead to infection.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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