July's Health Genie: Poison Ivy

Note:This article is not meant as a substitute for proper medical advice. Please consult with your medical practitioner before using any type of remedy, herbal or otherwise.

Dear Health Genie,

What information do you have about poison ivy and rashes caused by it?

Itching for your response,
Ivy Rubor

Dear Ivy,

Over half of all people may develop an allergic rash after contact with poison ivy. For some, only more aggressive exposure to freshly broken stems or leaves will cause problems. For others who are more sensitive, just brushing against a leaf will do it.

The rash is caused by an allergic reaction to an oily resin, or oleoresin, in the plant. Some other plants in the same botanical family, Anacardiaceae, especially those in the genus Toxicodendron can cause similar reactions. There is a name, urushiols, for a small group of structurally similar chemicals that come from this family of plants and cause contact dermatitis.  Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac contain these. Some food plants also contain urushiols, however those urushiols differ even more than those in poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac, and generally require more frequent exposures to cause an allergic reaction of the lips. It is thought that a person must be exposed to poison ivy at least once before developing an allergic reaction on the second or later exposure, but this is controversial among poison ivy sufferers. As with any allergic reaction, sensitivity and response differ from individual to individual and exposure to exposure. Also, plants may produce more or less urushiol depending on the time of year and habitat.

Most people know first aid step number one: wash the affected area immediately with warm water and soap. Soaps have been developed from natural ingredients that act as especially good solvents of urushiols. City Market has a liquid and a solid variety of soap, two different formulas from two different companies, specific for poison ivy. Although the urushiols have a tolerance for high temperatures, hot water may help these soaps break up the oils. Additionally, an oil based soap, or one with resins from other plants, may provide a good solvent.

Grindelia squarrosa, also known as gumweed, is a little known highly resinous Western weed suggested by some herbalists as a specific topical herbal remedy for poison ivy. It is suggested both for immediate use and after a rash develops. Yerba Santa, also a resinous Western plant, is used somewhat interchangeably. Jewelweed is another commonly suggested remedy which is native. Although very abundant it is seldom harvested, making it tricky to find a convenient way to use it. This spring, City Market introduced a liquid soap for plant itch relief by Vermont Soap, out of Middlebury, that contains fresh jewelweed as one of many soothing ingredients.

After a rash has developed, for relief you might try one of any number of remedies:

  • Calamine lotion and other products with similar ingredients (calamine, zinc oxide and kaolin clay) as they help in drying up the oozing and weeping of poison ivy sores. City Market carries calamine lotion and poison ivy/oak spray with the above and other botanical ingredients.
  • Another popular approach is to take homeopathic Rhus tox. (poison ivy). This may lessen annoyance from the itching. City Market carries this single remedy and a combination homeopathic remedy for poison ivy and poison oak.
  • Lemon, vinegar and a variety of essential oils have been used both, theoretically, to break up any remaining oil, perhaps the oil that has penetrated the skin, but also to stimulate the area, so that when the sensation fades, the itch from the allergic irritation is lessened in comparison. There may be something to this, as similarly, cayenne and menthol have long been used topically to reduce joint pain. Those two ingredients are not suggested for poison ivy sufferers.
  • Some find that essential oils that are considered cooling, for example, lemon, lemon balm, peppermint and sage provide temporary but worthwhile relief.
  • Avoiding spicy and fried foods can be helpful as these bring blood to the surface and generally make irritated skin even more red and uncomfortable.  Foods that have a cooling quality according to Chinese medicine may be helpful.
  • A very strong tea of licorice is advised as long as high blood pressure is not a concern.  A handful of the dried shredded root steeped in 1 ½ quarts of boiling water taken over the course of the day would be considered fairly strong.

Finally, in some cases Mother Nature wins. Severe cases of poison ivy may require medical attention, particularly if the throat or eyes are involved, and there are prescription medications that can reduce redness and swelling.

My Sincere Soothing,
The Health Genie

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