By: Sarah Grace Powers – Confluence Daily is your daily news source for women in the know.
My first encounter with poison ivy was in high school. But it wasn’t face to face. As a suburban city girl, I’d barely heard of the rash-causing plant, much less seen it.
Unfortunately for my friend Laurie, she had no idea what the poison ivy looked like either.
“I’m dying!” she told me on the phone.
“What happened?” I exclaimed. I knew she’d been at an outdoor party the previous evening and I assumed this was just another one of her regular boy crises.
“I had to go pee so I went into the woods,” Laurie wailed. “But I didn’t have any toilet paper so I wiped myself with a leaf. And the leaf was poison ivy!”
Laurie spent the next week or two laid up in her nightgown and slathered with calamine lotion. Too bad I didn’t know then what I know now. I would have told her to hop into an oatmeal bath.
And you’d better believe I’ve never resorted to wiping with a leaf when I have to drop my drawers outside!
Years later, after moving to Northern California, I tussled with the West Coast version of the three-leaved devil – poison oak – many a time. Sometimes it can show up as a small little rash on a finger or leg, and others (like the first time it got me) it’s been angry, hot, itchy swelling on my entire face.
Knocking wood, I can thankfully report I’ve never suffered from the rash in the exact area that afflicted my old high school chum.
Depending on where you live, and how often you get out in nature, you are likely to someday encounter poison oak, poison ivy, or poison sumac. All three can result in a horribly itchy rash caused by urushiol oil. Over the counter, and prescription treatments usually involve cortisone – a substance to be avoided if possible.
Now, if you or your child is covered head to toe in poison oak welts, don’t let me tell you to stay away from the doctor. Do what you need to do. Especially if you’ve been unlucky enough to get it in your eyes or…. well you know, where Laurie got it.
However. There are alternatives. And many of them can work as well or better as hydrocortisone creams and the like. Here’s a list of some of my personal favorites, and a few others that come highly recommended.
1) Soothing Oak and Ivy Compound.
Okay, I’ll admit it. I’ve gotten lazy (and busy) as the years go by and I’m not as much of a do-it-yourselfer as I once was. When I discovered this magical tincture, I stopped trying to make up my own poison oak washes and just made sure I always carried a bottle with me when I ventured out to places where poison oak might be lurking.
Formerly called Grindelia-Sassafrass Compound, this is now sold as an external spray. Both of these herbs are recommended by many herbalists as treatments for poison oak (see below). But the magic of this formula comes from the menthol crystals. The herbs help to dry out the icky rash, but the cooling menthol soothes and seems to actually scratch the itch. (And everyone knows the first rule is DON’T SCRATCH.)
Unfortunately, you cannot use this product anywhere near the eyes or sensitive tissues (the menthol will sting like hell!) But it’s great on any other part of the body. If the blisters have begun to open, it might sting a bit, but I find a little sting to be so preferable to the agonizing itch!
The stuff is fabulous and I highly recommend it.
I try to keep a small bag of bentonite or green clay around because of its myriad uses for first aid. If all you have is clay, you can just mix it up with a little water and apply to affected area. It will help to cool and dry out the rash.
If you stir a few drops of peppermint essential oil in, you will multiply the relief.
You can punch it up even more by mixing up this clay-based poison oak remedy ahead of time. Take a cup of green clay and mix in enough witch hazel, water or vinegar to make a creamy paste. Then add two tablespoons of salt and about 10 drops of peppermint essential oil. Store the resulting paste in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. If it starts to dry out, just add a bit more liquid.
Slather on as needed. You can buy clay in bulk at most health food stores.
3) Lavender and Tea Tree Oil.
Both of these essential oils are used to treat itches from bug bites and other causes. I keep each on hand for a variety of ailments. Well, it turns out they work great on rashes caused by poison oak or ivy too!
You can mix the two essential oils together in equal proportions and dab on the affected area, or just use one of them – whichever you happen to have on hand. Since essential oils are so concentrated and you are using them neat, this treatment is best for smaller patches of poison oak.
But – if you wanted to treat a larger area of a rash this way, you could mix several drops of essential oil into a spritzer bottle filled with rubbing alcohol. Shake well and spray this mix directly on the rash. Be sure to keep well away from the eyes or other sensitive areas!
4) Dandelion tincture or capsules.
This was a new one on me. Several years back when I was miserable with another outbreak all over my face, I complained to my herbalist friend that all the external poultices were only providing minimal relief. She told me that dandelion taken internally might help to cool the hot, itchy inflammation.
I grabbed a tincture and started taking half a dropperfull every couple of hours, and you know what? She was right! Now, I always accompany my other topical remedies with some internal dandelion (if I can get my hands on it.)
If you try this, be sure you find good quality tincture or capsules made with raw dandelion root.
5) Oatmeal Bath.
This home remedy is known to help out with any itchy condition. But if you’re dealing with a poison oak/ivy rash, make sure your bathwater is cool, or at least just lukewarm. Hot water can make the itch even stronger, and (although I guess this is not proven and may not even be scientifically true) it’s been my experience that hot water spreads the rash.
An oat bath is a great remedy for a large rash that has really settled in – or if the rash has affected sensitive areas that can’t be treated with stronger topical treatments. The oats sooth the itch and work to draw out the toxins.
First make a big pot of very soupy oatmeal. Some people swear by colloidal oats, but any type of oats will work. (I always just use the rolled oats from the jar in my pantry.) Strain the oatmeal into your cool bath and then put the oaty residue into an old sock. While soaking in the bath use the sock as a washcloth and dab on the rash.
You could give your oatmeal bath even more anti-itch kick by adding in some Epsom salts, some baking soda, or a few drops of lavender or tea tree oil.
6) Baking Soda.
This is a great one if you’re stuck somewhere without access to essential oils or herbal treatments. Like at Grandma’s house way out in the country in Kansas, and you forgot your first aid kit and she doesn’t even have oatmeal.
She’s bound to have some baking soda – even if it’s just used to refresh the odor in her fridge. Grab that box, take a few spoonfuls and mix with water. Apply that paste to the affected area to experience some soothing relief. Repeat as needed.
Okay, maybe Grandma doesn’t even have baking soda. But she has buttermilk. Or, maybe you want to try this remedy just because it sounds so cool. I have to admit I’ve never tried it but I may give it a go next time I face my plant nemesis. It sounds quite soothing.
Mix equal parts buttermilk, salt and vinegar and apply this liberally to the rash. The reports are that the itch will be soothed and the rash will dry up sooner.
8) Aloe vera gel.
This tried and true first aid burn remedy also comes in handy for poison ivy and other itchy rashes. Try mixing it with lavender and/or tea tree oil, or perhaps with a tea made with grindelia, sassafrass or other poison oak-soothing herb.
9) Go with the wild plants.
Poison oak and ivy are plants and so of course they strike when one is out in nature. What better remedy to turn to than another wild plant? There are several that are known to be effective as poultices or brewed into a tea and applied to the rash. Of course this is what people did before we got all fancy and invented health food stores.
The most touted plant for healing and soothing poison ivy/oak is jewelweed. However – if you don’t live on the East Coast, forget about using this as a wild plant. You may be able to find some jewelweed-based remedies in stores or online though.
Basically, you just pick a bunch of jewelweed (which handily grows near the poison ivy), crush it and apply to the affected area. You could also take it home and throw it in a pot of boiling water to make a tea. The resulting brew can be applied with a washcloth or even added to a bath.
But jewelweed is not the only wild plant remedy for this affliction. Others that have been used for centuries are grindelia (also gets lots of rave reviews), mugwort, sassafrass, plantain, Manzanita and yerba santa. Try a poultice of any combination of these herbs. Or make up a tea to use as a wash.
You can get creative and add in some of the above-mentioned natural remedies (such as essential oils, salt, vinegar, etc) to make your own customized poison oak wash.
Another great idea is to make ice cubes with a tea from any of the above plants (fresh or dried). Since the rash longs for cooling, the application of ice can always help. And all the better if you use ice cubes made with plants with a healing action. Ice treatments are especially nice for a face inflamed with poison oak rash.
10) Cool it down with cooling herbs.
When you’re back from the woods and only have your own medicine cabinet, back yard or the local herb shop to turn to, see if you can get your hands on some cooling herbs.
Cleavers, chickweed, burdock and dandelion will all work to bring down the heat. All of these are considered garden weeds and you might be able to find them right outside your door. If not, you can find the dried versions for sale.
In addition to using these as wash, you’ll benefit by drinking the tea. Drink as much as you can.
11) Go for the tried and true
If you’re at the herb shop, whether brick and mortar or online, check out some of these ready-made remedies and preventatives to keep on hand: Hylands Poison Ivy/Oak Tablets (a homeopathic remedy that is said to hasten the healing of the symptoms) and Wounded Warrior (a gel-like substance made with manzanita and other herbs – many of my customers swore by this and cursed us when we ran out).
Remember, your first line of defense is to prevent a poison ivy outbreak from happening in the first place. How to do this? Get to know the plant. If you’re in the West of the U.S., you’ll be looking out for poison oak, otherwise watch out for poison ivy or poison sumac. You can view more photos of each plant and read descriptions here – but your best bet is to have a knowledgeable friend point them out.
But, yeah. Despite your best intentions, you may just have a run-in with one of these plants. They like to hide and disguise themselves, your dog might have rolled around in it, the oils might have stuck to your shoes – who knows?
If you know you’ve been exposed, wash thoroughly with Fels Naptha soap, or Burts Bee’s poison ivy soap as soon as possible. Use tepid water. No soap? Even plain water will help rinse off the rash-producing oil.
And finally, just do your best not to scratch it. Keep applying the above remedies rather than your fingernails. If you need to, put socks on your hands before going to sleep. Scratching – although oh so satisfying – will ultimately just make the rash worse.
Sarah Grace Powers is a Holistic Life Coach and the creator of The Ageless Body Blueprint. She works with women over 40 who want to embrace ageless living and who are ready to release the weight—physical or emotional— that holds them back from achieving their dreams and making their impact in the world.
Sarah is a long-time herbalist and certified life coach with decades of experience in the natural health field. Find her at SarahGraceCoach.com, or Download her free report: Five Surprising Mistakes That Sabotage Your Weight Loss (when you’re over 45).
More by Sarah: