Summer is the best friend of poison ivy, oak, and sumac. When the weather is hot outside, people spend more time in the great outdoors, which means more people accidentally running face first into some poisonous shrubs, leaves, and vines. If that sounds like you, instead of suffering through the itch or spending money on expensive pharmaceutical solutions, try some of these home remedies out.
For all three, urushiol is the culprit behind those itchy rashes and blisters, and you can actually get infected year round, not just in warmer months. The urushiol oil can be found on the leaves, stems, and even in the sap of roots and vines in these three Toxicodendron flowering plants — even during winter months.
Though reactions vary, about 80–85% of people are allergic to urushiol oil, while a lucky 15% or so are immune to its toxins. So a red, itchy, blistering rash from poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac is an all too common skin affliction for most of us.
Fortunately, like mentioned earlier, there are various home treatments we can try in our bout with Urushiol-induced contact dermatitis, aka Toxicodendron dermatitis, and they can be found in our medicine cabinets, refrigerators, and cupboards.
What's that saying? The best defense is a good offense? Well, in the case of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac, this is certainly the case. Being proactive when it comes to protecting yourself from these plants — and the urushiol oil within and on their surfaces — can possibly save you from weeks of itchiness. These measures may not be 100% foolproof, but they can definitely help minimize your chances of getting a prolonged rash.
- Protective clothing: Long-sleeve tops, pants (versus shorts), boots, and gloves can all help in preventing the urushiol oil from making contact with your skin and setting off the allergic reaction.
- Tools and gear: Urushiol oil can remain active for up to five years. Being colorless, the oil may be on the surface of a tool or a piece of gear and you won't even know it — until you get a rash 12 hours later that is. To help avoid such scenarios, clean camping tools and gear using rubbing alcohol and/or soap and water (and while wearing disposable gloves). You don't want to bring the urushiol oil home with you.
- Pets: While running or walking in the woods, pets can also pick up urushiol oil on their fur. When you go to hug them, that oil transfers to you and a poison ivy, oak, or sumac rash isn't far behind. You can't stop them from exploring, but be mindful that their fur can become a carrier for the oil. An oatmeal bath when you get home is a good idea.
- Identification: Perhaps the best offense though is to familiarize yourself with what the plants look like. (See below.)
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says, western and eastern poison ivy combine to cover the entire US, with the exception of California, Alaska, and Hawaii. Meanwhile poison oak primarily grows along the western United States and in the southeast. Poison sumac is abundant along the Mississippi River and is common in boggy areas of Southeastern US. To identify these plants, look for:
Grows on the ground as a vine; eastern poison ivy can also sometimes grow as a shrub. It has three leaves and is usually green, though it turns red in the fall.
Grows as a shrub and a vine, both on the ground and climbing. Like poison ivy, poison oak also grows with three leaves, though these leaves are rounder. Poison oak may also have flowers (green) and berries (green-yellow).
Grows as a shrub with 7–13 leaves arranged in pairs on its stems. The shrub may have berries that look glossy with pale yellow or cream color. The leaves typically have black or dark brown spots, and in autumn, the leaves can turn red, yellow, and pinkish.
The moment you notice an itch that may be due to poison ivy, oak, or sumac, wash the area thoroughly with soap and water. While the urushiol oil has already made contact with your skin, the first step to countering it is to clean it off. Afterward, you can apply some quick DIY remedies instead of paying for calamine lotion or corticosteroids, among other items.
This DIY method uses some simple off-the-shelf ingredients. For this treatment, you'll need:
To try, simply clean the afflicted area, dry it thoroughly, then spread a layer of rubbing alcohol over it using a cotton swab. Next, sprinkle the body powder over the alcohol to create a "paste" of sorts. Continue to rub this paste on the rash until it's completely covered, then wrap it with gauze. This will keep the area clean and dry, while also helping to alleviate some of the itchiness. With the gauze, you won't be able to directly scratch and tear the skin.
Or, more precisely, the inside of a banana peel. This remedy is actually an old wive's tale, but its effectiveness is quite real.
The inside of the banana peel can help dry up a patch of skin infected with urushiol oil, and by doing so, help soothe the urge to scratch. For this remedy, you'll rub the inside of the peel on the irritated area, and keep it there for at least 15 minutes; Repeat two to three times a day. Some will swear it can clear up a rash in less than a week. Also, don't let the banana go to waste! Time it with a snack.
Bananas aren't the only food you can use to treat a poison ivy or poison oak rash though — potatoes and oatmeal can also work in a pinch. Potatoes are often used to treat inflammatory conditions, such as sunburn, and oatmeal is well known for its soothing ability (thanks to its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory compound avenanthramides).
For this remedy, you'll also want to create a paste to rub onto the irritated skin. For oatmeal, simply mix a batch. For potatoes, use a mixer or blender to grind the vegetable up until it gains the consistency of a paste. For oatmeal, you can also sprinkle the oats into a bath for a soak.
Shifting to beverages, you can also try a high-proof alcohol, such as vodka, in place of rubbing alcohol to sterilize the rash and help prevent infection. Skin that is scratched creates tiny openings that can quickly introduce bacteria into the body. Applying alcohol will help clean the irritated area and wash away the urushiol oil. If no vodka is on hand, vinegar will also work to temporarily relieve the itchiness.
And finally, one more beverage that can help counteract a nascent poison oak or ivy rash is coffee. A cup of cold, black java is a common, proven DIY remedy for itchiness and is based on the chlorogenic acid found in coffee beans, an anti-inflammatory ester. To try this method, simply pour (cold) coffee onto the rash. You can also try soaking a cloth and applying it to the inflamed area, keeping it in place.
The American Academy of Dermatology says a rash from poison ivy, oak, or sumac usually clears up in a few weeks. These DIY remedies, simple and quick, can prove a great relief while waiting for the rash to subside. For a serious reaction to urushiol oil, please see a doctor for treatment.