By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
Without great skill or cunning, I (Kaye) renewed contact with my least favorite plant “” poison oak. But this time I learned something new: The plant doesn’t even need to have its leaves to harm me. At least I was more knowledgeable about treating my affliction this time than I was four years ago when I was overcome by the itching. Instead of suffering for a full month, I found relief after just two weeks.
Appearing in public with such bright-red proof of my misery brought forth more than sympathy: I also received many suggestions for treatment. Poison oak is so common around central California that it would be tough to find anyone without first-hand knowledge of its dangers. Both a local pharmacist and my next-door neighbor, the latter a nurse, offered bits of wisdom from their own experiences, which included old-time remedies as well as suggestions of prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications.
You might think that spending a couple of hours on the Internet searching and downloading information about this irritating subject would be overkill, but hidden inside 20 pages of itchy anecdotes lay several helpful tips.
1. Plan ahead to prevent the problem
Following my first episode with poison oak, I heard some very good things about IvyBlock, a non-prescription lotion that you put on your skin before you even get near irritating plants. I purchased a bottle, but it didn’t help “” not because the product doesn’t work, but because I wasn’t smart enough to get it out of the bathroom cabinet and spread it on my skin. If you expect to be in the vicinity of poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac, apply IvyBlock just as you would sunscreen, covering all areas of skin likely to be exposed. The lotion dries quickly and will prevent your skin from absorbing the rash-causing urushiol oil. Use running water and soap to remove the dried lotion after the risk of exposure has ended. If necessary, reapply after four hours.
This substance also is said to prevent urushiol from penetrating your skin. It’s certainly inexpensive and easy to keep on hand. After mixing one part household ammonia to 10 parts water in a spray bottle, spritz both your skin and your clothes before entering areas with the irritating plants. Should you make contact with the plant, re-spray immediately, and allow the ammonia to dry thoroughly before washing it off. According to experts (those who have had multiple opportunities to test the remedy), if you use the ammonia mixture within 20 minutes of exposure, it usually prevents the rash. Note: Ammonia produced no fading on the shirt and pants I wore; however, you should test the solution on your own garments before spraying and leaving the ammonia on while you walk or hike.
3. Oak-N-Ivy Brand Tecnu Outdoor Skin Cleanser
This product gets rave reviews for dissolving and removing poison ivy resin from clothes and skin. It’s a bit pricey compared to ammonia, but it’s certainly worth the money if it does the job. Because urushiol begins to bond with skin cells within 20 minutes after exposure, Tecnu must be applied as soon as you realize you’ve come in contact with the plant “” within two to eight hours, according to product literature. Follow the washing and scrubbing directions and get the oil dissolved and off your skin as soon as possible. Since I didn’t recognize the plant until an hour or more after exposure, Tecnu didn’t save me from the rash entirely, but it certainly minimized the damage.
If, in spite of your best efforts at prevention, you still have a bit of a rash and it’s driving you crazy, read on. Our neighbor, a nurse named Robin Blossom, cautions that just as no two people have the same degree of sensitivity to a poison oak or a poison ivy encounter, neither should we expect to match another person’s success with a particular remedy for the resulting itch. Therefore, we’ll remind you of several old-time, tried-and-true remedies.
4. Baking soda paste
This concoction has served itchy people for centuries. Make a paste using approximately two parts baking soda to one part water and slather it on the rash. The nice thing about this remedy is that you can reapply it as soon as the itching resumes.
5. Rubbing alcohol
Using rubbing alcohol on the rash serves a couple of purposes. First, it offers temporary relief from the itching. Second, the sting it causes to areas you’ve already been scratching reminds you to stop.
6. After Bite
The concept is simple and the package is plain “” this is an ammonia-based product in a handy pen-like application vial. We’ve used it for years to ease the itch of mosquito bites and it gives the same temporary relief for poison ivy or poison oak rash.
7. Epsom salts
When dissolved in water (two tablespoons per cup), this solution has its fans, both for reducing itch and for drying weeping wounds. Oatmeal baths also work for some, as do colloidal oatmeal products such as Aveeno brand baths or lotions.
For many itching people, applying Tinactin brand athlete’s foot spray to the affected skin helps stop the burning and controls the itch. Spray the rash with Tinactin, and you may be one of those fortunate people whose skin irritation dries up within 24 hours.
9. Over-the-counter allergy medication and cortisone skin cream
Sometimes you need more relief than that provided by the simple remedies covered above. Our pharmacist here in poison oak country recommended using Benadryl in conjunction with a good cortisone cream. They may lessen the itch so that you can get some sleep.
10. Hair dryer
Bless the person who came up with this idea: Simply heat the rash with a hand-held hair dryer to dull the itch. This works on the same principle as taking a searing hot shower or bath to draw out the histamines and provide itch relief. Unfortunately, a hot bath or shower during sweltering midsummer nights makes sleeping impossible. Thus, every night for almost two weeks, I heated each rash-covered area with the hair dryer, just long enough to ease the itch but not damage the skin. Did the hair dryer do the job? Put it this way “” I’ll never go on a trip without it.
11. When the rash is widespread
If the rash has spread from head to toe, you may need a more serious approach. Start by seeing a doctor. When I was first exposed to poison ivy, my whole body was covered with the rash. I treated it for more than a month using only home remedies and over-the-counter medications. Once I finally relented and went for professional help, my doctor prescribed prednisone (corticosteroid) tablets to be taken over the course of a week in declining daily dosages. The rash began to dry “” with far less itching “” in only two weeks! Now I know better.
12. Prescription allergy medication
This type of medicine is frequently prescribed for seasonal allergies, and it can usually relieve the itching and burning caused by poisonous plants. My doctor cautioned me, however, not to begin using it until after I finished taking the prescribed steroid medication.
13. Get on with your life
After you’ve done everything you can to lessen the itching and hasten the cure, occupy your mind with something you love to do “” take your honey (human or canine) for a walk, or plan your next travel outing. The rash will heal without you worrying about it.