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Don’t Just Itch and Moan – The Truth About Poison Ivy

I have an herbalist friend who shares an interesting story about poison ivy. She has some land in the Northeast that she had intended to use for growing herbs and teaching about them. As she was clearing out the scrubby part of the woods she got a tremendous case of poison ivy, like she had never gotten before. No matter what she did or how she tried to avoid it, she could not escape the itching and rash, and finally got so frustrated that she was ready to chemically exfoliate the entire area.

But this really went against her nature… here she was, an herbalist, desiring to live on the earth in partnership with nature, not at odds with it.

As a last ditch effort she decided to go inward for answers, and spent a period of time in meditation, attempting to “communicate” with the spirit of poison ivy. These are the understandings and results that she reports…

“The purpose of poison ivy, in the grand scheme of things, is to protect the woods. The more that man encroaches on the woods, the more virulent and vigilant the poison ivy becomes.”

With this understanding, she then communicated back… “I will be the steward and protector of this particular piece of land, you no longer need to protect it.”

The response was… “I will take your word for that, and allow you to protect this land. However, to prove your commitment and dedication, I want you to eat three small leafs of poison ivy every spring.”

My friend has done this faithfully in the spring every year since. And with each passing year the poison ivy recedes further and further back into the woods… and she has not gotten a case of poison ivy since.

The scientist in me listens to this story and postulates that the early spring leafs of the poison ivy are not as potent as those of later on in the season, and that she is probably building up an immunity to the poison ivy, much like the way an allergy shot may work, by providing very small amounts of an offending substance so the immune system can get used to the offending substance.

And yet… for her, this has worked and she now remains at peace with nature as opposed to at war with it.

I want to make it clear that I am in no way suggesting that any of us in the real world should start eating poison ivy leafs to avoid getting poison ivy. There are, however, some things that you should understand about how poison ivy is contracted and spreads. And, because of the current season, you should also know the kinds of remedies that are available to treat it if you do happen to get it.

Urushiol oil is the offending substance in poison ivy (as well as poison oak and poison sumac) that causes the signature allergic reaction or dermatitis. This oil is so powerful that it would only take ¼ of an ounce to cause a rash in every single person living on the earth right now. Urushiol oil commonly stays active on any surface for 1 to 5 years (including dead plant material), and there are some specimens that are literally centuries old that still cause the rash in sensitive people.

Poison ivy is the most common allergy in this country, claiming half of the population. Sensitivity to the urushiol oil can develop at any time and the reaction can differ from person to person. In California, poison ivy dermatitis is even a cause for a workers compensation claim.

Typically, after contact with the urushiol oil, a person will break out in a rash and begin to show swelling in 24 to 48 hours, although sometimes the initial exposure will take 4 to 7 days to cause a reaction. There are some highly sensitive people (up to 15% of the population) that begin to react in a matter of a few hours. Their eyes may begin to swell shut and blisters may immediately begin to erupt on their skin. This is considered to be one of the few true emergencies in dermatology, and a trip to the emergency room is warranted if the reaction is that severe.

There are many misunderstandings about poison ivy and how it spreads, so allow me to dispel some of these myths.

  • Poison ivy is not contagious – poison ivy is contracted by exposure to urushiol oil, plain and simple. Rubbing the rash will not make it spread. The only way it would spread in that instance is if the sticky, resin-like oil has been left on your hands or clothes.
  • Breaking the blisters can not cause it to spread – the contents of the blisters are certain body fluids, not the urushiol oil. It is important to note that the broken blisters can become infected and that can cause scarring to happen.
  • You can not get poison ivy just by being near the plants – you must come in direct contact with the offending oil to get it. However, it is possible for the urushiol oil to become airborne, from burning or lawnmowers, trimmers, etc.
  • You do have to worry about dead plants – as mentioned earlier; it is common for the oil to remain active for up to 5 years on a dead surface.
  • Immunity to poison ivy is unusual – just because you have been exposed before and not gotten a rash does not mean that you will never develop sensitivity to it. Approximately 90% of people are sensitive to urushiol oil, but sometimes it takes multiple exposures to begin to react.
  • It isn’t just the 3 leaf plants you need to worry about – it is true that poison ivy and oak grow in 3 leaf clusters, but poison sumac also contains urushiol oil and it grows in 7 to 13 leaf clusters.

As for treatment, it should be obvious by now that the only real way to avoid the rash is to avoid the contact with the urushiol oil. The way it spreads is through the same contact, so a key strategy at controlling the spread is to get rid of the oil.

Urushiol oil is a sticky, resin like substance, much like the sap from a pine tree. Have you ever experienced getting pine sap on your hands from a Christmas tree? That pine aroma lasts on your hands for days. It is the same with the urushiol oil, it sticks to everything… and it needs to be obliterated.

Before the oil has had a chance to bind to a surface, water is adequate for removal… so if an exposure is identified immediately, flushing with large amounts of water will do the trick.

All too often, however, we do not know about the exposure until later. In this case, there are a few soaps that have been effective at removing urushiol oil. Any common dish soap like Joy or Dawn is formulated to remove grease and oils… and will work well for urushiol oil too… so use this for any body part. There is a special soap called Oak-N-Ivy Cleanser by Tecnu that also seems to be effective.

Clothes that have been exposed need to be laundered immediately. Letting these clothes hang around the hamper or on furniture or the floor allows for the oil to spread to other objects. Again, that oil commonly remains potent on a dead surface for up to 5 years. Some experts believe that exposed clothing should be washed twice before wearing again.

How about treatment once you’ve gotten the rash and are itching like mad? The old standby, Calamine Lotion, seems to offer some relief, although walking around like a big, pink Smurf is just not vogue anymore.

There is a homeopathic remedy called Rhus Tox that I have had good success with for many patients… I recommend using it in the 30 C strength. A good thing about homeopathic remedies is that they are very affordable and offer no chance of side effects.

For a topical treatment, I like Itch Nix Gel… it has Aloe Vera and a host of essential oils that sooth itching and swelling and helps dry out the blisters while your body works through its allergic reaction.

There are dozens of other “remedies” that come from people’s experiences, including rubbing Ban Roll-On on the rash to dry it up, and using various remedies from the kitchen, like baking soda or honey.

Obviously, the best medicine for treating poison ivy is proper avoidance of the plants in the first place. Or, like my friend in New England, you could make contact with the plant spirit and never have to worry about it!

So I'm thrilled. I'm surprised that the pills would work so quickly, . . ., but still it's been over two weeks now, and I'm still seeing really good numbers.
- M.
Bethesda, Maryland