As your fingers pluck the weeds between lengthening squash vines and ripening tomatoes, don’t forget to keep both eyes open for the ones that fight back. Poison ivy, oak and sumac are more likely to be tangled up in dense undergrowth; however, they still manage to appear where you least expect.
You can identify the poison ivy family by its shiny leaves in clusters of three, but don’t forget you can also contract an itchy rash from touching the roots, stems, flowers or berries. This reaction is known as contact dermatitis caused by contact with the irritant urushiol, resin found in poison ivy plants. When transferred to your body, urushiol bonds with the lipids in your skin. If not diluted with cold water immediately or wicked away with rubbing alcohol, an allergic reaction will follow, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website, that will make your skin a war zone.
If you find yourself among the unlucky, nurse your rash with home-grown and store-bought antidotes, but remember time and patience are the only cure as you wait for the blisters and bumps to run their course (anywhere from two to four weeks). To reduce itching and spreading try some of the following:
In The Itch and You (May/June 1989), MOTHER EARTH NEWS writer Terry Krautwurst suggests some remedies from home.
- Moist compresses, soaking in cold water or taking a cold shower can temporarily ease the fiery itching.
- Jewelweed (also known as touch-me-not) is common in the eastern U.S. and has long been used to ward off rashes. If you find that you’ve gotten into poison ivy, grab a handful of jewelweed leaves, flowers or stems, crush them, and rub them on your skin to release the juice.
- Aloe vera gel can be squeezed from the plant of the same name or purchased in health food stores and drugstores. Aloe soothes and seems to promote healing.
- Herbal topicals (not to be consumed, but applied to a rash) such as jewelweed, plantain, oak bark (leaves or acorns), rhubarb leaves, ragweed, dock, gum plant (grindelia), garlic and goldenseal are among the more common and highly praised rash-healing herbs, according to Krautwurst.
There are many over-the-counter creams available. Try Tecnu Poison Oak-N-Ivy Cleanser. Tecnu is said to neutralize skin, clothing, footwear and tools and is available at outdoor and garden supply centers. Calamine lotion is also great for soothing itch and healing damaged skin after the climax of the rash. Calamine comes in pink and clear and is a classic antidote. An oatmeal bath can also calm poison ivy symptoms. You can buy a commercial oatmeal preparation (Aveeno), or make your own by wrapping a half cup of uncooked rolled oats in a piece of cloth and letting the cereal soak in the bath water. Squeeze the bundle from time to time or use it as your washcloth to release a solution that will help dry up the blisters and treat itch, according to Krautwurst.
Understand Your Symptoms
In Outwitting Poison Ivy,Susan Carol Hauser dispels a lot of the myths surrounding the angry red blotches, oozing, weeping blisters and sensitive, itchy bumps that are the result of a brush with urushiol oil. Remember to wash all clothing and tools that may have come in contact with poison ivy. This will lower your risk of re-exposure. Also, try your hardest not to itch and further irritate the reacting skin. Be patient and let your immune system finish the fight on its own.
If you do break open a few of the blisters, do not worry about re-infection. The watery fluid released from the blisters is only blood serum and does not contain traces of urushiol oil, according to Hauser’s research. When new patches appear several days after the beginning of a rash, this is not necessarily evidence of spreading, but rather the emergence of other areas you were exposed to with smaller quantities of oil. Sometimes the original pattern of the contamination shows itself over a longer period of time. Late bumps can also be a sign that you are re-exposing yourself to urushiol oil and should re-wash clothes and wipe down furniture that may have come into contact with the oil.
The best cure is to avoid poison ivy all together so remember as you happily tackle rows of weeds this summer to keep both eyes open for the ones that fight back.
Learn more about Identifying and Irradicating Poison Oak and Poison Ivy from Sandra Dark (March/April 1981) in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS archives.
Browse this dialogue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers to see what home-grown poison ivy antidotes they suggest.