Growing up, I was immune to poison ivy and oak, but six years ago, I got it for the first time and it was BAD. I originally thought it was just mosquito bites, but after my legs swelled to the size of tree trunks and the itching became unbearable, I realized something was up.
If you like to hike, garden or play outside, it's hard to avoid poison ivy. It doesn't discriminate when it comes to growth, popping up in forests, fields and backyards. Since summer is the season you're most likely to come in contact with the plant, here are a few things you should know about spotting, preventing and treating poison ivy.
How It Works
The plant (and its relatives poison oak and poison sumac) contains urushiol, an oil that can cause allergic contact dermatitis when it touches the skin. Urushiol can be removed with soap and water before being absorbed by the skin, but that window can be as little as 10 minutes.
Prevention + Identification
The first step to preventing poison ivy is being able to correctly identify the plant (there are many lookalikes). Trust the old adage: “Leaves of three? Let them be.” Poison ivy can grow as a vine, a bush or a single plant but is always characterized by three pointy leaves closely connected to the stem.
The leaves are broad, and the center leaf is longer than the two smaller ones to either side. They're bright green — sometimes shiny — but turn red in the fall. The plant can have berries, which are white or cream-colored, and sometimes grows like a vine wrapped around trees or stone walls.
If you do come in contact with the plant, the best defense is to wash it off immediately with soap and cold water. If a rash develops, it usually shows up within 12-48 hours of contact in the spot the oils land. When you start to scratch, you'll inevitably spread the still-active oils to other parts of your body where those same dots will begin to appear.
Make sure to wash any clothing you were wearing as the oils will stay active on the cloth and you'll run the risk of giving it to yourself again.
Since becoming prone to poison ivy, I've researched every natural remedy. Here are a few things I've found to be effective:
Long used as a remedy for skin issues by Native Americans, jewelweed contains chemicals that neutralize the irritating oils of poison ivy. The plant has a tall stalk, silvery-green leaves and trumpet-shaped yellow or orange flowers. (It's actually called jewelweed because the leaves shimmer like jewels when you run them under water!) You can break the stalk, lightly chew it and then rub the juice directly on your skin after exposure to prevent rash. You can also simmer the stems and leaves in oil, strain and apply to affected areas after the rash appears.
2. Baking soda & vinegar paste
Mix 2-3 teaspoons of baking soda with enough vinegar (white or apple cider) to make a thick paste. Lightly scrub your rash with a loofah or pumice to release the oils, then rub baking soda-vinegar mixture into the rash and let it sit for several minutes before washing with cold water. Finish by dabbing the rash with vinegar (via cotton balls) and leaving it on the skin. This is a highly effective way to dry out the rash.
3. Essential oils & aloe vera
Peppermint, chamomile and lavender essential oils help soothe and relieve itching. Tea tree oil is a powerful antiseptic that helps dry out the rash. I like to blend a few drops of all these essential oils with fresh aloe vera gel and apply topically.
4. Oatmeal & salt bath
Finely grind one cup of rolled oats in a blender, then mix with one cup of sea salt. Pour the mixture into a lukewarm bath (hot water aggravates the rash and releases and urushiol oil that's still present in your skin, helping it spread even more). Soak in the bath until you feel relief. Oatmeal helps calm the rash and itching, while sea salt helps dry it out.
Wishing you a happy and poison ivy-free summer!
Photo Credit: Shutterstock