Powerful Remedies for Poison Ivy and Its Itchy Cousins

If you know the enemy, you can avoid the itch or keep from scratching.

June 4, 2009

Spending time in the great outdoors has been scientifically proven to lower stress—that is, unless you wander off into a patch of poison ivy. More than 50 percent of people are allergic to the colorless, odorless oil called urushiol, which is found in the leaves and other parts of poison ivy. Coming in contact with the oil can cause an incredibly irritating rash that can linger for up to three weeks. Poison oak and poison sumac also produce the itch-generating oil.

Rash on the rise. Each year between 25 and 40 million people in the U.S. come down with a poison ivy rash. And climate change is going to make the matter all the worse. Poison ivy will thrive at higher levels of CO2; it’s already growing nearly 150 percent faster and has had a 30 percent increase in toxicity since the 1950s.
Know the enemy, part 1. First line of defense: knowing what these poisonous plants look like so you can avoid them. Poison ivy is found nearly everywhere in the United States, and grows either as a vine or shrub, often along riverbanks. “Leaves of three, let it be” is the classic poison ivy warning. Its signature three leaflets—three leaves growing from a single stem, with one in the middle and one on either side—are reddish in the spring, green in summer, and yellow, orange, or red in the fall. Some plants may also bear white berries. Caution: The leaves don’t necessarily have to be shiny or glossy; even if they’re not, they can still make you itch.
Know the enemy, part 2. Another nuisance to look out for is poison oak. It grows as a low shrub in the eastern part of the United States, and in tall clumps or vines on the West Coast. The green leaves are fuzzy and, like poison ivy, grow in clusters of three; they are lobed or deeply toothed with rounded tips, and the plant may bear yellow-white berries.
Know the enemy, part 3. Poison sumac tends to grow as a tall shrub or small tree in bogs or swamps in the Northeast, Midwest, and parts of the Southeast. While the previous two offenders boast three leaves, each sumac leaf features clusters of seven to 14 smooth-edged leaflets. Leaves are orange in the spring, green in summer, and yellow, orange, or red in the fall. Like poison oak, sumac sometimes bears yellow-white berries.
Act fast. Generally, there’s a small window of opportunity—a few minutes—during which you can flush the affected area with cool water then gently use soap to wash away the lingering oils before they start irritating your skin. If you’re outdoors, this could mean racing to a nearby garden hose, stream, or river. Be careful not to scrub with a washcloth, though. You don’t want to open your pores, which will set them up to swallow any missed oils. If you’re traveling in the wild, carry a bit of rubbing alcohol with you, and apply that over any area that came into contact with a poisonous plant, in hopes of wiping out the skin-irritating oils.
Other solutions. Campers can also pack chlorine-free baby wipes to cleanse areas that come in contact with poison, suggests a tip found in the upcoming book, The Big Doctors Book of Home Remedies (Rodale), coming out later this year. If you have ice in a cooler handy, rub that on the affected area. If you’re really roughing it and come down with the itch, the book’s authors suggest bathing in a pond or stream every two to three hours, and applying a thin layer of mud on the blisters to help dry them up.
Wash it away. An important thing to remember about these plants is that their oils can stay potent for up to five years. That’s why it’s a good idea to wash your garden tools and gloves with a mild soap regularly. If you’re working around the irritating ivy, you may want to use the topical cream Ivy Block, which will prevent your skin from absorbing the plant oils. You should also don long pants tucked into your boots, long sleeves, and gloves when spending time in an ivy zone, and toss the clothes in the washing machine as soon as you get back inside. Clean in hot, soapy water.
Beware of dog. Snuggling up with your pooch is relaxing, unless the dog was high-tailing it around in the brush earlier in the day. Although dogs usually aren’t irritated by poison, they can definitely carry the oils home to you. If your pet’s been romping around in a suspect spot, snap on some dishwashing gloves and bathe the animal in nontoxic pet shampoo with natural ingredients and no artificial fragrances.
Take rash action. Typically, the rash will show up a day or two after you’ve been exposed to the plant oil. If you come down with an itch that makes you want to tear your skin off, take heart in knowing there are tried-and-true remedies that can keep you comfortable for the 10 days to three weeks these rashes usually last. Along with the classic itch-buster calamine lotion, and various other OTC treatments from the pharmacy, try cool showers and oatmeal or baking soda baths to sooth the itchiness.
Suppress the scratching. Do what you can to not scratch; poison ivy isn’t contagious, but if you have any plant oil residue jammed under your fingernails you could spread the misery to other parts of your body. Plus, bacteria under your nails can further irritate the skin or cause an infection. Use cool compresses to tamp down the itchiness.