Poison oak, ivy, and sumac are found all throughout the United States. And if you're one of the many who are allergic to these prevalent plant species, then you know all too well the itchy, intolerable symptoms that are caused by urushiol, the colorless oil they produce. The hot, sometimes painfully itchy rashes, blisters, and swelling appear a few days to a week after contact with the oil and can take weeks to heal. The rash is the result of allergic contact dermatitis that can happen if you are sensitive to urushiol.
According to Ayurveda, contact dermatitis is a pitta-kapha condition. (If you're a beginner, you can read up on Ayurvedic dosha types here.) The heat, inflammation, and itchiness associated with the rash is a result of aggravated pitta, while the swelling is the result of kapha dosha. A specific chain of events happens with contact dermatitis: urushiol aggravates pitta dosha, resulting in the itchiness and burning, and then kapha dosha arrives in the form of swelling to try to contain the heat of pitta.
Below are a few tips and at-home-remedies, inspired by the wisdom of Ayurveda, to help combat the intense discomfort of poison oak, ivy, and sumac:
1. First things first: rash prevention!
The best advice I can give you is to become familiar with where poison oak, ivy, and sumac grow in your area and what they look like. If you're allergic, prevention is key! Washing all clothes, tools, and pets that have come into contact with the plant is recommended in order to prevent further contamination. This will help break up the urushiol oil that's been transferred from the plant. We like Marie’s Poison Ivy/Oak Soap for the body. It's all-natural and helps pull out any toxins and oil residue from the skin.
2. Ice, don't scratch.
If you do develop a rash, make sure to keep it clean, cool, and dry. Second, do not scratch the rash! It is so much easier said than done, but cultivate the will power to just say no and leave it alone! Finally, apply an ice pack or compress to the rash to relieve the itch and calm inflammation.
3. Take an oatmeal bath.
Combine a quarter of a cup of oatmeal flour with one tablespoon of Epsom salt and one tablespoon of lavender powder in tepid (NOT hot) water. Soak affected area for at least 10 minutes. This will help soothe the skin and reduce itching.
4. Make an Ayurvedic healing lepa.
In Ayurveda, when you create an herbal paste and apply it topically to the skin, it's called a lepa. During my studies at the California College of Ayurveda, I had the honor of studying the energetics and actions of various herbs—and their effects on the skin—in depth. Based on my studies, training, and direct experience working with the herbs, I've formulated a skin lepa to reduce the symptoms associated with contact dermatitis.
This lepa will also work to draw out any remaining toxins from the skin and promote healing. Please note, if you desire to learn more about the specific actions of each herb in the below formulation, I highly recommend the book The Yoga of Herbs by Dr. David Frawley. It is a wonderful book and will help you gain more insight into the principles of Ayurveda. Don't use any of these herbs if you're allergic to them and it's always a good idea to test a small portion of the skin before covering larger areas. And if you have any doubts about the severity of the contact dermatitis or your reaction, ask your doctor or consult with an Ayurvedic specialist.
Combine the following ingredients in a bowl:
- 16 grams turmeric powder
- 16 grams sandalwood powder
- 8 grams neem powder
- 8 grams comfrey powder
- 8 grams manzanita berry powder
- 2 grams bentonite clay
Slowly combine the powdered herbs with equal parts:
- Aloe vera juice
- Apple cider vinegar
The consistency should be paste-like. Apply to effected area and cover with a bandage. Keep on throughout the day, reapply as necessary.
5. Use an anti-itch spray.
Many companies have aromatherapy spritzers that combine the cooling energy of peppermint with the soothing properties of herbs like sandalwood and lavender. Try adding two to four ounces of apple cider vinegar and one teaspoon of dead sea salts to the bottle for even more calming and anti-itch power. Again, test it out on a small areas and if you have any doubts or concerns, ask a pro!
Although these plants wreak havoc on some of us humans, they do serve a purpose of protecting and preserving the natural world. I have suffered at the hands of these plants since I was a child and it's taken me years to find an appreciation for the beauty that is contained within their spirit. I have tried many different remedies and find that this five-step protocol outlined above works best for me.