How to alleviate or, better yet, avoid an encounter with poison ivy

PoisonIvyEmergency Situation: You’re day hiking with your troop when suddenly you get the almost irresistible urge to scratch at your ankles. Looking down for the offending swarm of mosquitoes, you notice not a red bug bite but rather the beginnings of a nasty, bumpy rash — you suspect it could be from poison ivy.

What should you do?

Solution: Don’t scratch! Admittedly, that’s more advice than solution. But it still holds. Scratching can not only spread the offending agent (urushiol, which is actually a resin, not an oil) that causes contact dermatitis (better known as an irritating rash), but it can also lead to infection.

We’re all familiar with the age-old saying, “Leaves of three, let them be.” This is fine as far as it goes, though poison sumac — equally, if not more, itch-inducing than poison ivy — defies the three-leaf description. It might have many leaves, and it might come in shrub or tree form. But even identifying poison ivy can be tricky. Depending on the season, poison ivy leaf clusters might be green, yellow, orange or red. And as its name implies, it might appear as a vine.

Typically, at least 50 percent of people who come into contact with poison ivy will develop some form of rash within a few hours or days of exposure. (Some people are less sensitive than others, but scientists have yet to figure out how the lucky half got so lucky.) In most cases, the itching symptoms of the rash can be treated in the field with a cold compress or by running cool water over affected areas.

While the rash might blister, note a common misconception: The fluid in the blisters cannot spread the rash. That said, urushiol on the skin is easily transferrable via hands or clothing. Wash your hands and all affected clothing.

But what about when you’re out in the field? Here, a few remedies can reduce discomfort, though only one is said to reduce or eliminate the rash.

One option, besides simple soap and water, is an over-the-counter product called Tecnu, which claims to be more effective than ordinary soap at removing urushiol from the skin if applied right after exposure. (Tecnu was invented in the 1960s as a waterless cleanser for removing radioactive dust from skin and clothing … if that makes you feel any better about a harmless rash.) Add it to your first-aid kit for in-the-field treatment.

The gel-like interior of the aloe plant can cool and soothe your rash. Other natural itching remedies include witch hazel and tea tree oil, either of which would be appropriate to pack in an outdoor emergency kit. Calamine lotion has been used for decades to treat contact dermatitis, and it still works to reduce itching. In severe cases, prescription cortisone cream might also be used.

Ultimately, another old saying holds true: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” You can avoid exposure by wearing hiking boots and long socks, or pants, and wearing gloves when you remove them.

Or hike in the dead of winter.


16 thoughts on “How to alleviate or, better yet, avoid an encounter with poison ivy

  1. If you are sensitive to poison ivy, you can still come in contact with it in the winter. Leaning on a tree that is covered with ivy vines can leave urushiol on your clothing and skin. Also, it is dangerous to burn wood that has poison ivy vines attached. The smoke from burning poison ivy can inflame your airway. In some cases this could be lethal. There is a plant that often grows near poison ivy called jewelweed. Crush the stems of this plant and rub it on your skin to help relieve symptoms and to help remove the urushiol.

    • My mum, aunt and I brought home some lovely white berries after a winter walk, and all soon had poison ivy. As noted, PI is still out there in the winter.

  2. you can get poison ivy in the winter too – so don’t touch the vines or be careful what you are burning …… best piece of advice – stay on the trail! You can also get it thru burning wood with the plant attached …. so be careful!

    • Another interesting thing about Jewel Weed – also called “Touch-Me-Not”, is that if you peel the little seed that it produces, it is a beautiful turquoise blue. That is another theory that I have heard about the naming, It is fun to show kids the unexploded seed pods and how the fly apart and how the leaves look like quicksilver (mercury) under the water.

  3. Jewel weed. It got its name because when the leaves are placed under water they turn silvery. Plants have yellow or pink flowers. The plants frequently grow near poison ivy, but especially in damp areas near a pond or stream. Crush leaves or stems and rub on area exposed to poison ivy. A “tea” (not to drink) can also be made and frozen as a home remedy; to apply rub cube on the site as it melts from body heat. For details see books by Euell Gibbons, I forget which one. However, I checked Amazon and it appears the earlier editions (the ones I have) are available used, and there was a reprint (after his death in 1975). Euell also claimed the roots could be used to treat warts, but I haven’t witnessed any success with that treatment.

  4. You can also get poison ivy if your dog or cat comes into contact with it and then you pet them or it rubs against you. My father-in-law burned wood containing it and ended up in the hospital many years ago. Sometimes I have had it so bad I had to be put on Prednisone for a few days.

  5. I also hear that white vinegar both prevents and helps heal infected areas. My mother swears by it and applies the vinegar to her arms before gardening.

  6. Caution! Do not use hydrocortisone after Tecnu. Through experience, I found that it causes the rash to flare-up. In my case it required prescription steroids.

  7. Way better then hydro cortisone betamethasone cream. One brand on market is Diprolene. After just one application will stop itch COMPLETELY. It is only available by script so ask your doctor for some prior to a hiking trip. good stuff

  8. I can get it as early as a couple hours after contact. In all seasons. Also, anything that came in contact with the plants has urushiol on it until you wash it. Boots are big on that. How many people wash their boots? Poison Ivy (I think the others also) has white berries early in the season.

    Poison Ivy can look like Poison Oak. Use the 3 rule. Poison Oak cannot live in all climates and Poison Ivy is mistaken as Oak all the time.

  9. Matt – fill a bucket with water and liquid dish soap. A rag dipped in this soapy water can be used to wipe the boots and decontaminate them. Don’t forget to clean the laces as well. The grease cutters in liquid dish soap can do a great job of removing poison ivy, oak, and sumac’s oily toxin from the surface of boots, camping gear, etc.

  10. I’ve found Zanfel works the best and I’ve tried them all for Poison Oak. Available at Walmart. Expensive little tube, but worth it!

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