|Here's how the poison ivy response occurs. Urushiol makes its way down through the skin, where it is metabolized, or broken down. Immune cells called T lymphocytes (or T-cells) recognize the urushiol derivatives as a foreign substance, or antigen. They send out inflammatory signals called cytokines, which bring in white blood cells. Under orders from the cytokines, these white blood cells turn into macrophages. The macrophages eat foreign substances, but in doing so they also damage normal tissue, resulting in the skin inflammation that occurs with poison ivy.
The allergic reaction to poison ivy is known as delayed hypersensitivity. Unlike immediate hypersensitivity, which causes an allergic reaction within minutes of exposure to an antigen, delayed hypersensitivity reactions don't emerge for several hours or even days after the exposure.