Quick Relief for Poison Oak

young poison oak

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I went camping in Poison Oak Central last week, and though I tried to be careful, I got a kiss on the back of the hand from our rakish woodland friend, Toxicodendron diversilobum (Pacific or Western Poison Oak).

It was, miraculously, the first time I’ve ever had poison oak. I don’t know how I’ve been so lucky so far.  I’ve heard that rubbing native mugwort on the skin can prevent/treat the rash, and I’ve done that a few times when I suspect I’ve brushed against some poison oak. (Mugwort almost always grows where the poison oak does.) Whether all these emergency poultices prevented anything or not is impossible to prove, because I’ve never contracted a rash until this time. I’ll keep doing it, though.

After avoiding the green bandit so long and so well, I was almost happy to get hit at last–in this mild way, mind you–because I was curious to see what the rash would look like and feel like. My exposure really was a kiss. It landed exactly where a gentleman would press his lips to a lady’s hand. Three watery blisters appeared on my knuckles after about 24 hours, accompanied by lots of general redness and itching.

First I poulticed with both mugwort and plantain, but that only worked so-so. Then I hied off to the internet and sifted through the many folk cures until I found one I liked from good ol’ Dr. Weil. He recommended running hot water over the rash, as hot as you can stand it. I don’t remember that he said how long you should do this, but I decided to do it as long as I could stand it, which in my case was probably a minute or so. He said the heat will cause the itching to flare temporarily, but then suppress the itching for hours, and speed healing as well.

Results? It worked like a charm for me. Of course, you want to be careful not to scald yourself and add insult to injury! But with that caveat aside, I definitely recommend giving it a try. I particularly liked that I could do the treatment before bed and fall asleep without itching, and be good until morning, when I’d do it again. All in all, once I discovered the hot water cure, I had bug bites which bothered me more, and lasted longer, than the poison oak rash.

What do you do for poison oak/poison ivy? And to anyone who has been lucky enough to run into both plants, is there a difference between the two in terms of the rash? Is one worse than the other? I’m only familiar with poison oak.

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32 Comments

  1. As a child, I lived in an area with both poison ivy and poison sumac. We were taught very young how to identify which leaves to avoid. If someone did get into it, the treatment for skin was to immediately clean it with rubbing alcohol, then wash well with soap and water. And try not to touch the clothes’ outer surface, put them straight into the wash.

    However, they forgot to mention that the leaves drop off in our cold climate winter. One day in early spring I took a set of pruning shears and decided to make myself a little hiking trail in the woods behind our house. I cut quite a few vines that were draped between trees, and pulled them out of the way. Nice trail, but my face and hands broke out in those watery blisters that were insanely itchy. It was too late to wash it off by the time I realized I’d been cutting poison ivy vines. Apparently you can also get a bad reaction if you burn cut-off vines and breathe the smoke, since the urushiol is released into the air.

    I have never seen poison oak, but was told, ‘If you think poison ivy is bad, poison oak is even worse.’

    I think your blog is great. I’m in a colder zone, but I still learn a lot reading here, and think that you do a wonderful job of writing on so many interesting topics.

    • Thanks, Hannah!

      Your comment about rubbing alcohol made me realize that hand sanitizer, which tends to be around whenever I’m camping, would probably work to remove the oils at initial contact.

      Your story about the vines reminds me of the worst case of poison oak I’ve ever seen — a friend was working in a community garden, applying mulch. Someone had thrown scads of poison oak into the mulch pile. My friend, who had been carrying loads of mulch bare armed, came out with a thick oozing rash all up the insides of both arms. I had to bind her arms with bandanas just to contain the fluid. shudder.

      So, yes, we must all be cautious!

  2. I would propose that it is somewhat in your mind too:
    While on a motorcycle trip to Michigan I was exposed to Poison Ivy, on the trip back home, with nothing to do but ride and scratch the rash was getting worse and worse! I was involved in a motorcycle accident and broke my shoulder blade, the rash literally disappeard within a day or so of the accident! Not sure how that could help, but maybe meditation or something to distract the mind, mind over matter, just don’t get in an accident to cure Poison Oak, not worth it………. (;

  3. We only had poison ivy where I grew up – the low lying leafy stuff. Although I’ve walked through the bush many times, and brushed it with my jeans many times, I’ve never had it on my skin. My family members who’ve had closer encounters swear that Sunlight bar laundry soap is the best way to get it off your skin before a rash appears.

    • The soap probably cuts oils really well. I think it’s all about getting that oil off ASAP if you know you’ve been hit.

  4. I’m super allergic to poison ivy. Like cortisone shots kind of allergic. I’ve found that straight lavender essential oil is helpful in calming the itch and drying the blister.

    • I like putting lavender essential oil on bug bites for the same reason. Helps burns, too. Invaluable stuff!

  5. I cannot speak for poison oak, but blowing hot air to the poison ivy rash with a hairdryer at the highest setting you can tolerate without burning yourself has the same effect as the hot water treatment that you have described. I found that this is the only thing that works for me.

  6. The Thermapen is used on insect bites–supposedly the heat denatures the venom that makes us itch. I wonder if the same mechanism works on Poison Oak?

    • I’d bet. You see the other comments here about the blow dryers? Something about heat and histamines, it seems.

  7. I don’t seem to be allergic to poison ivy or oak, but my husband was very sensitive to it. Colloidal oatmeal products were somewhat helpful, and a pruduct called Tecnu a little more so, but he usually succumbed to the misery and applied or took bendryl. A few times it got so bad he had to get prednisone. He got it worse than most people, though. What we really had to be vigilant about was washing everything–skin, clothes, (mine too!) and bedding that might have been in contact with the poison ivy. The irritating oils can stay on them for a while, at least a few days, and bring up a fresh new rash where they touch the skin! Dishwashing liquid works quite well as it breaks down fatty substances. On skin this is most helpful before the rash comes up or at the very first sign. One caveat; don’t put dish soap on the washing machine, unless you enjoy mopping!

    • “One caveat; don’t put dish soap on the washing machine, unless you enjoy mopping!”

      LOL!

  8. The hot water treatment reminds me of what my former gynecologist told me when I mentioned having had an allergic reaction. She said that holding a blow-dryer on the spot would relieve the itching, just as your hot water did, and she went on to explain the interaction between heat and histamine, which I have since forgotten. Unfortunately, my allergy problems are of the nasal sort; pointing a blow-dryer up my nose is something I’m hesitant to try.

    • Ha!

      But yes, heat is getting lots of votes.

      Heat and chlorine bleach, strangely!

  9. I have both in my yard. Poison Ivy is the one that climbs into the trees. Poison oak is low and shrubby. The only place I ever get it is on my toes. Yes, I wear sandals to work in the yard. Several times I have gotten it on a finger. I will apply anything to stop the itch. I have used Vick’s Salve, Dr. Scholl’s corn remover. The point is to make it hurt so bad it stops itching.

    My friend always washes her arms with straight Clorox bleach after coming in from contact with it. She swears by it. I won’t try bleach.

    Once my two daughters (8 and 13) and I were tromping around in bushes, following my friend on his heavy equipment as he worked. Finally, I realized what we were wading through. We got into the car after putting newspaper on the seat so we would not spread the oil. The first gas station was a dive. It was too filthy and the girls objected to going into the bathroom. When I ordered them in and told them to wash, they were on the verge of tears. I taught them to well about nasty…lol

    When I explained they had a choice, open sores and itching all over their legs and arms where their shorts and tank tops did not cover, they got busy soaping up. There were no paper towels, but we all three soaped and washed, making our sandals all slopping and our clothes a bit damp. Then, we had to try to rinse with just our hands to carry water to our skin. None of use had any problems later. They were instructed not to touch their clothing and to take it off at home very carefully. Then, they got into the tub and bathed off again, let the water out and bathed again.

    I laughed at your three blisters. You were sooo lucky.

    Dogs or cats coming in contact with plants can bring the oil into the house and spread it to anything they contact–people or furnishings.

    • You bring up a good point — the oils get on clothes and our pets’ coats, so you’ve got to be extra careful. It would be terrible to avoid the stuff all day and then get it that night while petting your dog, or later in the week, while doing your kid’s laundry!

  10. We had bush in the front yard. When we would get the rash, my grand father would skin the bark off this including leaves and boil it on the stove, he said it was something he learned from a native american. Anyway after it cools down you rub this stuff and the liquid all over, This was gone on contact, redness gone in 24 hrs and by the third day bumps were gone too. Which I new what that plant was, I’d put in my yard. Sadly Grand father is long gone.

  11. This won’t apply to all jurisdictions, but where I live poison ivy usually lives near jewelweed, which I understand has natural antihistamines. Crush the leaves on your skin. It is also supposed to have a preventative quality too.

  12. I have been doing this for years, after reading it in Amy Dacyczyn’s book ‘The Tightwad Gazette’. The hot water does seem to suppress the histamine effects, at least long enough for me to fall asleep. I also do this when I have been wearing shorts in the garden – having grass or other plants brush against my legs makes them itch like crazy, so I step into the shower for a minute and run the hot water on my legs.

  13. The best treatment for poison ivy I have found is swimming in a chlorine treated pool. Now that so many pools are changing over to salt I’m not sure how I will treat the rash. Also, spraying with kitchen spray containing diluted bleach works well.

  14. I Used to get Poison oak really bad. My old fashioned doc would treat me with a UV lamp to dry up the blisters. Later when he quit practicing sometime in his 80s his son took me on as a patient.
    He would tell me to go to the beach. The salt water would dry it out in a day or two. There used to be a product called Domboro? which worked great as a wash on the affected areas. Epsom salt soaking might also work.I believe the key is to change the PH balance of the skin ASAP after exposure.

  15. If you’re walking with dogs in an area that has poison ivy, remember
    patting them later can transfer the oil to your skin too. In New England, we have jewel weed…rubbing the plant on the rash relieves the itch quite well if it’s just a small amount…major cases require
    a visit to the doctor….and patience!

  16. I used to get poison ivy and/or sumac every year growing up, at least once. The worst was deer hunting one fall, walking through a marsh, stopped to take a leak. Leaned the gun against an innocuous-looking bush, which turned out to be poison sumac. Got the rash on my face, arms, hands…everywhere.

    As a result of my frequent urushiol encounters, I had a chance to try just about every remedy ever thought of, and for me, nothing works better than hot water, as you say. In the shower, I turn the shower head to the “rocket blast” setting and direct the stream onto the affected area, then slowly increase the temperature. Shower at night to get to sleep, shower in the morning to keep the itch away all day.

    I’ve noticed that it’s important not to itch or rub the rash while the hot water is running over it, or the anti-itch effects don’t seem to last as long.

  17. I take lots of volunteers out to do trail work in the San Diego mountains where poison oak is quite common. We use Tecnu soap, which is extremely effective. I’m quite sensitive to poison oak and Tecnu really reduces the symptoms and will eliminate them completely if applied within the first few hours after exposure. I carry a bottle of it in my pack always.

  18. Another caveat: don’t put laundry detergent in the dishwasher. (Easier to do than you would think. Especially if one tends to reuse plastic bottles…) Bouts of mopping will inevitably ensue.

  19. Hello all,
    I loved this post but I thought I could offer up my info on the topic. I get the “poisons” so badly that my friends used to say that the summer could officially start when I got it the first time for the year. I have had all three and have tried every home cure going. I even get it so bad my Dr. would give me a hand full of prednisone scripts for the summer and I still have to go get the shot sometimes. Loving to be outdoors doing anything, I do tend to come home with it a lot. But after the boyfriend and I (mostly him) figured this out I don’t even pay attention to where the ivy’s even are. Here is our cure and it WORKS!! When you first see the histamine blisters pop up, take table salt and put it on a damp washcloth, enough to see. Scrub the blisters, I mean scrub until it stings (don’t worry its a relief sting) do not wash the salt off. By the next day it will be going away and no itch. As for your cloths when you wash them add a quick pour of ammonia to your wash (don’t worry your cloths wont stink) Thats what works for me after years of itching. Oh if you don’t salt the blisters and they are already broken out into the rash it wont work, but the sting of salt sprinkled onto the rash does provide a little itch relief. Hope this helps someone, it works so well for me I even carry a small container and a bandana in all my packs.

  20. Sorry to be so late in posting – I’ve very behind in my blog reading. My daughter was extremely sensitive to poison oak but the homeopathic remedy rhus tox. helped her tremendously, along with a topical spray of jewel weed.

  21. Where you able to find a remedy for the bug bites? I usually use natural remedies like the ones you can find in your own kitchen, Try washing your hands in lukewarm water added with oatmeal to relieve the itchiness. Hope that helps!

  22. Try “Jewelweed”. Have used it for decades. Generally grows in the same areas, damp shady areas as P-I or P-O. Google it for other recommenders and pictures, data, etc. I’ve used the salt scrub-scalding water also, but that’s not for the timids. Be well…

  23. The cure you learned from Dr. Weil reminds of one we acupuncturists employ. Using a plum blossom needle, which has seven tiny needles in it, we “hammer” at the rash until a few drops of blood come to the surface. This removes the heat from the area and gives great relief, much as the hot water does. I also wonder if the juice found in the stem of the jewelweed plant would work as well for poison oak as it does for poison ivy.

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