Leaves of 3, let it be
The best way to avoid poison ivy or oak symptoms is to know what it looks like—and avoid it. The plants have three leaflets growing from a single stem, and vary in color from bright green in the spring to dark red in the fall. They usually grow as bushes or vines, near the edge of fields, forests, streams, hiking paths or yards. Poison ivy grows east of the Rocky Mountains, from Canada down to northern Mexico, while poison oak thrives in the western states. Both are relatively rarely above 5,000 feet or in deserts.
Both poison ivy and poison oak (and poison sumac) are members of the Toxicodendron family of plants. These plants produce urushiol, an oil found in leaves, stems and roots that causes an allergic reaction in the form of rashes and blisters. (Interestingly, a less potent level of urushiol is found in mango skins, leaves and stems, as well as cashew and pistachio shells.) But not everyone is allergic to the oil—three out of four people experience a reaction to urushiol. If you are allergic, you can be exposed through indirect contact from urushiol-tainted clothing, pet fur, tools or equipment.
The key to minimizing the reaction it to get rid of the oil as quickly as you can. Within 10 minutes, 50 percent of the oil is already absorbed into the skin. Wash the area immediately with isopropyl (rubbing alcohol) or soap and plenty of cool water (no baths or showers, as hot water opens the pores, allowing urushiol to spread faster!).
Fortunately there are cleansing products made just for the task. Tecnu Outdoor Skin Cleanser is highly recommended by Pharmaca staff, as it removes the urushiol oil to stop the spread of the rash. Zanfel Poison Ivy Wash also does the trick. Smart hikers and campers carry these, just in case (especially since these cleansers can be used to wash off clothes, pets and tools, too!).
Got red streaks?
You’ll know if you’ve made contact with urushiol if a rash appears within 8 to 48 hours. Long red streaks or raised areas will appear where the plant brushed the skin. And it will itch. A lot. You’ll have red bumps or even leaky blisters that can scab. The rash may burn. These symptoms can go on for anywhere from 10 days to 3 weeks. While it’s not contagious, be sure no one else comes into contact with the oil when it’s still on you.
Pharmaca offers several remedies to help ease the symptoms, according to Barbara Reitebach, customer specialist in Mill Valley and Theresa Brown, naturopathic doctor in Portland.
- Tecnu Extreme serves as a wash that removes the urushiol oils, which can lessen or even stop symptoms from appearing altogether. And it contains the homeopathic plant Grindelia robusta (aka gumweed), which soothes and reduces pain and inflammation.
- All Terrain Poison Ivy Spray relies on kaolin clay to draw out toxins, zinc oxide to heal blisters and comfrey root and colloidal oatmeal to reduce inflammation.
- Herbs, Etc.’s Ivy Itch Relief Spray contains jewelweed extract, which naturally neutralizes the urushiol antigen, and plantain leaf to ease the itching.
- Benadryl Extra Strength Itch Relief Spray contains histamine blocker Diphenhydramine HCI, and skin protector zinc acetate that helps dry up the blisters.
In addition to topical treatments, Boiron’s Rhus Toxicodendron is an oral homeopathic remedy recommended for skin conditions associated with intense itching, burning, redness and swelling, especially poison ivy or oak, explains Theresa. Take 4- 5 tablets, 3 times a day to help speed recovery.