At age 5, I first learned about poison ivy while sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen sink having my little legs scrubbed with brown soap. I had been, without permission, exploring the woods behind my grandparents’ home. Unbeknownst to me, lurking among the acorns and pretty leaves I was gathering grew the dreaded poison ivy. “It’s very bad,” my grandmother said as she scrubbed away. “It could hurt you and make you sick.”
Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are not actually poisonous: They don’t contain toxins that will kill us. However, all three plants produce an oily resin called urushiol, a compound that causes an immune system reaction in our skin. Approximately 10 percent of humans don’t react to urushiol, while 90 percent will get a skin rash from even slight contact with it. The reaction is a blistery, red, puffy, patchy rash where you had contact with urushiol. It’s usually on the legs and hands, but if you nuzzled your pet after it brushed against one of these plants or stood in smoke from a fire where one was burned, the rash could appear on any exposed skin, including your face, eyes, and throat.
Most commonly, contact occurs from brushing up against the leaves of these plants while working or playing outside where the plants grow. Urushiol can linger on pet fur, gloves, tools, and tarps. It can even be in smoke, so when these plants are burned, it can cause reactions in people who haven’t directly touched the plant. Breathing urushiol-laden smoke deep into your lungs or getting the oil in your eyes can be dangerous.
In most cases, a poison ivy, oak, or sumac rash does not require a trip to the doctor. You can treat it at home, and several natural medicines will relieve your symptoms. Here are my favorites:
Wash your skin. My grandmother was right: If you wash your skin within 30 minutes of exposure to urushiol-containing plants, you may completely avoid a rash. Any soap will do, even dish soap if you don’t have bath soap handy. You don’t need to scrub vigorously, just a good wash to remove the plant resin.
Oatmeal bath. Soak in an oatmeal bath for great relief from the itch. Tie a sock filled with raw rolled oats to the spout of your tub and let the water flow through it. Soak for 15 to 20 minutes as often as needed.
Calendula. This plant has skin-healing and soothing properties. Buy a tincture, a spray, or make your own tea from the dried flowers. (Steep one-quarter cup of dried flowers in one pint of hot water). Apply Calendula directly to your rash every two hours until your symptoms calm. Pour or spray it onto your skin. Avoid rubbing as this will aggravate your symptoms.
Witch hazel. If your rash is hot and burning, the astringent, cooling reaction of witch hazel can be very soothing. Pour or spray. Don’t rub.
If you develop a rash near your eyes or in your throat, if you have a fever, or if you experience any trouble breathing, see your physician immediately.