Treating Poison Ivy at Home

Poison ivy is some kind of bastard plant. Growing up, I remember seeing my father submerged up to his ears in an oatmeal bath after tangling with the stuff in our backyard. Having seen this, and witnessed how long it takes the angry, red rash to disappear, you’d think I’d have known what to avoid in my own yard. I did not. But my two weeks of misery are the Internet’s gain, because I tried every home remedy I came across.

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I sent this picture to my friend Susan when she asked to see how bad I was. The photo doesn’t do the rash justice!

Common phrases any gardener should know: “Leaves of three, let it be,” and “Hairy rope, don’t be a dope.” I was well versed in the first (not so the second.) Our yard is really more a patch of unkempt land that abuts the duplex we live in. It almost has potential, and I’ve been trying to make it better since I moved in. There’s a grouping of three trees, but they were obscured by overgrowth and covered in unattractive, hairy vines. The vines were stubbornly attached and more than ten feet long. I worked for an hour or more, hanging from the biggest, longest vines to pull them down. By the time I was finished, I’d gotten about a third of the vines I could reach, I was sweaty, and I was covered in little hairs from the vine. The next morning my arms, chest, legs, and face were covered in a red, bumpy, sadistically itchy rash.

Poison ivy grows as a vine and a shrub. My battle with the damn stuff isn’t over, so the pictures below are mine. I took them this afternoon on the same tree I tried to liberate in July. The vine is easy to identify, as are the leaves. Vines are hirsute and cling to whatever they’re growing on with those surprisingly strong hairs. In the summer the leaves are solid green, pointed, and clustered in groups of three. The leaves change color with the seasons – in the fall, poison ivy’s foliage becomes yellow and red. From May to July, the plant produces yellow-green flowers, which then give way to berries.

No leaves, but this is poison ivy growing on my tree.
No leaves, but this is poison ivy growing on my tree.

Most Americans can’t stand poison ivy. It’s estimated that half (possibly three-quarters) of the population is allergic to urushiol, the oil found in poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, and poison dogwood. Once we touch urushiol, our skin absorbs about half the oil in ten minutes. The oil is present in every part of the plant, including the roots. If you come in contact with part of a poison plant, get to a sink and grease cutting dish soap as fast as you can! Be thorough, and stick with cold water. Hot water may open your pores, allowing the oil to penetrate your skin more.

Urushiol is an irritant to humans, but wildlife in unaffected. Birds and deer love the berries poison ivy produces and eat them with abandon when they turn up in late summer. So get rid of all the poison ivy you want in your yard, but don’t bother with poison ivy you’re not likely to come in contact with. The animals will thank you, and honestly? It’s not worth the trouble or the potential for a rash.

Leaves of three, growing on the vine. I got itchy just snapping the picture.
Leaves of three, growing on the vine. I got itchy just snapping the picture.

I can’t remember ever getting a rash from poison ivy before this summer, although I must have come in contact with it as a kid. When we first moved in to our house, the backyard was wild and poison ivy was everywhere. It’s not uncommon to be unaffected as a child and then have a bad reaction as an adult, however; some people get bad rashes as kids and then experience only mild irritation (or none at all) as adults. The luckiest folks, relatively speaking, are those that get one big, bad rash, and then find themselves immune forever after. To sum up: allergies are weird and they often change as we age, so just play it safe. (I had a friend in middle school who was so sure she wasn’t allergic to poison ivy that she rubbed the leaves on her face. It did not end well. But I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that story, so…)

Home Remedies

Baking Soda Poultice After a nasty run in with a nest of yellow jackets in middle school, my mother made a paste out of baking soda and water. We put it on the stings and they immediately felt better. The alkaline powder might help to draw the toxins out (or in this case, oil.) I tried it, I wasn’t satisfied. The relief mostly came from the cold, wet, paste and once it dried it did nothing for me.

Ice Packs One of my favorite remedies. Really cut down on the urge to itch, which was the hardest part for me – I have a bad habit of itching until I break the skin. I know, it’s awful. Austin (literally) sat on my hands to keep me from scratching my face. Ice packs are great, but don’t use them too long: your body can only handle so much exposure to the cold at a time. Twenty minutes on, twenty minutes off. Feel free to try other remedies until you can get your hands back on the ice pack!

Aloe Vera Gel The gel found in aloe vera leaves is most commonly used to soothe sunburns, but it’s versatile stuff. The gel is used to calm break outs and eaten for its purported “superfood” benefits. I chopped up the entire small plant we had growing on our stoop, scraped out the gel, and applied it to my rash. Somewhat soothing, but not fantastic – I love it for sunburns still, but not for treating poison ivy.

Baths, Baths, Baths! 

I spent a lot of time in the tub while I had poison ivy, and I loved it. Got a lot of reading done. Take cool baths, though, as a hot bath will just make you itch more.

Saltwater Bath This is probably the best method of drawing out the urushiol oil. Draw a cool bath and use a lot of salt. I mean, three quarters of the Morton’s Kosher Salt box. As much salt as Madison the mermaid does in Splash. If it don’t taste like the ocean, you’re wasting your time. Salt is cheap, and this remedy is worth the small expense. Speaking of the ocean: if you live by one, and you get poison ivy, hop in that thing! Spend a good hour (or two) enjoying the surf with a friend in itch-free bliss. It’s the best remedy there is, as far as I’m concerned.

Oatmeal Bath This is probably the most well-known home remedy. Even companies like Aveeno have cashed in. You can spend about $10 on a bath in a box, or you can make it yourself quite easily. You’ll need pantyhose, oatmeal, and a blender. For one bath, finely grind 1.5 cups of oatmeal. Put it in the pantyhose and tie it off to make a pouch. Start the bath, hanging the oatmeal pouch under the running water. The water will become opaque and feel silky on your skin. I took the pouch down and used it to gently rub the rash on my face. Felt amazing. Certain chemicals in oatmeal may have anti-inflammatory properties, but we’re not sure exactly it is that makes oatmeal such a relief for irritated skin. I don’t care what does it, all I know is that I stayed in that bath for a solid two hours and re-read almost all of The Hobbit.

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Oatmeal baths are a relaxing home remedy. Cheap, too.
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Opaque bath water, thanks to an easy to make oatmeal pouch!

After a week of relying on natural home remedies, I went to an urgent care clinic for a steroid. A steroid shot is recommended if the rash covers more than 10 percent of your body or affects your face, hands or genitals. My rash was severe, on my face, and covered about 30 to 40 percent of my body. I’d heard the steroid shot would work immediately and give me a crazy burst of energy. Nope! One painful shot in the rump later, I felt nauseous and itchy until I went to bed. I was much better the next day and continued to use home remedies to ease the itch until the rash cleared up.

Lesson well learned, Internet. Lesson well learned.

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