The itchy and painful rash that follows poison ivy exposure is the result of an allergic reaction to urushiol oil. It is a common allergen found in many plants belonging to the Anacardiaceae family. Very few people are immune to urushiol. Repeated exposure is known to induce sensitivity in people who have been previously immune.
Poison ivy is so common that exposure can happen any time. Mere contact with any part of the plant can trigger the allergy because it takes only one billionth of a gram of urushiol to bring on the reaction. Delayed onset of the symptoms is typical of poison ivy, so you may not even realize that you have been exposed, until the rash breaks out in 2 hours to 10 days.
If you have even the slightest suspicion that you could have come in contact with poison ivy try some of these home remedies. They can reduce the severity of the reaction, if not prevent it completely.
1. Dish soap and cold water
The first step in treating poison ivy exposure is minimizing the spread of the irritant substance. The severity of the rash is directly proportional to the amount of urushiol that gets absorbed into the skin. The sooner you remove it, the lesser the chance of it spreading to other areas. It has been found that half of the offending substance can get absorbed into the skin within just 10 minutes of exposure. So, if you find yourself near a poison ivy plant, do not wait for the itching to start.
Since urushiol is an oily substance, a grease-cutting agent is ideal to remove as much of it from the skin surface before it gets absorbed. Dish soap is the first choice here. Wash the exposed parts of the body with dish soap and cold running water. Ideally, remove all the clothing and dip them in soapy water and get into the shower with the dish soap.
If you live near the woods where poison ivy and poison oak are frequently seen, fixing an outdoor shower is a great idea. Cold water is better than warm water at this stage, since the latter may cause more irritation to the skin on the inflamed areas.
The first line of defense, i.e., washing with soap and water, is only effective before the oil gets absorbed into the skin. Once the dendritic cells in the skin come in contact with the oil, it gets carried to the lymph nodes where the immune reaction is initiated. A group of white blood cells called T-cells rush to the affected skin and destroy the skin cells exposed to the poison, resulting in the rash and blisters. Once that process is initiated, the focus should be on reducing the pain and discomfort.
This small annual called Impatiens capensis is considered an antidote for poison ivy. Fortunately, it commonly grows in shady areas, often sharing its habitat with the poison ivy. The moment you spot the offender in the woods, look around for this defender.
The leaves and tender stems of jewelweed should be crushed to release the juice. Apply it to the skin that could have come in contact with poison ivy. Jewelweed obviously contains some compounds that either counteract the urushiol in the poison ivy or the body’s response to this allergen.
If you live anywhere near poison ivy habitats, it is not a bad idea to grow jewelweed in a shady corner of the garden. It is a good remedy against other skin complaints like eczema, ringworm and warts too.
3. Apple Cider Vinegar
You probably have a good stock of this pantry staple. Use it liberally to soothe the rash. Mix half a cup of vinegar with one and a half cup of cold water and bathe the affected area with this solution. It is ideal to use organic apple cider vinegar, although ordinary white vinegar could be just as effective. Keep the diluted vinegar mixture in the refrigerator and repeat the application whenever you feel intense itching. Alternatively, you can dip a wide swath of cotton or a washcloth in the cold mixture and lay it on the rash.
Vinegar only helps relieve the itching temporarily, but it can keep you from scratching the rash and opening up the blisters.
4. Lemon juice and honey
The juice of lemons could work the same way as vinegar, but this remedy has the added benefit of honey. Mix the juice of a lemon with two teaspoons of honey and apply it on the rash with a cotton swab.
The hygroscopic nature of honey helps draw out the fluid from the blisters, reducing their size and making their skin tough. This prevents accidental popping of the blisters. Although there is no risk of the fluid inside the blisters spreading the rash to new areas, any break in the skin is a potential risk. It can introduce pathogenic microbes and dirt into the body, making way for infections.
Lemon juice has an astringent property that helps reduce any kind of boils on the skin on spot application. This works in tandem with the honey to accelerate the healing of the rash.
5. Baking soda
If you have used baking soda to soak up oil spills, you can imagine how it could be helpful with poison ivy. Dusting the skin liberally with baking soda and then shaking it off may help get rid of the urushiol oil particles, but whether it is as effective as, or better than, washing off with soap and water is debatable. But once the rash develops, baking soda comes in handy in relieving itching and reducing inflammation.
Stir a tablespoon of baking soda in cold water and use it immediately to wash the affected skin. It soothes the skin and relieves intense itching. Repeat as often as you like until the inflammation disappears. Alternatively, you can dip a washcloth in the solution and place it on affected area. Adding a handful of baking soda to the bath water may help if the rash is widespread.
Another way to use baking soda is to make a paste of it with equal amount of water and apply it thickly on the rash. Allow it to dry on the skin. This may help reduce blistering as the drying mixture dehydrates the rash.
You can continue to use baking soda solution even after the blisters burst, but use a more dilute version. Mix 2 teaspoons in a quart of water and use it to wash the area. Dip sterile gauze in the solution and place it on the broken blisters as a disinfecting bandage. Change frequently.
Oatmeal is a tried and tested home remedy for allergic dermatitis of all types, including rash caused by poison ivy. This has been commercialized by companies which offer ready-to-use oatmeal products like Aveeno. But you can make your own version at home from plain, uncooked oatmeal in your pantry.
Tie up a cupful of oatmeal in a piece of muslin cloth and keep it in a bowl of water. The oatmeal will absorb the water and swell up. Squeeze the bundle in the water to extract the milk. Wash the inflamed area with this liquid. When it dries, it leaves a thin powdery coat of fine starch which draws out water from the blisters, allowing them to dry faster. Keep the oat bundle in the water, and whenever you feel itchy, use it to squeeze some more milk on the rash.
You may find that adding oatmeal to the bathwater brings relief. To make it non-messy, you just add the cloth bundles to the bath and squeeze out the milk. Do not rub off the residue from the body with towels. Let it air dry to form a protective film that reduces the tendency to scratch.
If you have used cucumber slices on your face to relieve sunburn, you know how soothing that is. They can be just as effective on the poison ivy rash. Their cooling presence relieves itching and keeps the skin hydrated.
You can make a paste of the cucumber, skin and all, and apply it liberally over the rash. You can safely use it on your face and other sensitive areas.
Watermelon is just as good as cucumber, and much easier to make into a pulp. But it is the rind of the watermelon that people generally recommend for poison ivy rash. Place pieces of the rind–with white side down, of course–on the rash for immediate relief from intense itching. It is useful for small, isolated patches, but if the inflammation is widespread, applying a pulp made out of the white portion may be more practical.
We may think that the benefit comes solely from the cool moistness of the pulp, but there could be more than meets the eye. The phytochemicals in the pulp could be having anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects.
9. Aloe vera
Aloe vera is considered the ‘be all, do all’ for anything related to skin, so there’s nothing surprising about its use against poison ivy rash. Instead of buying commercial aloe vera gels that one normally uses on undamaged skin, you should try to make your own healing salve from the fleshy leaves of this plant. If you don’t have any aloe vera plant growing in the yard or a pot,–you should definitely have this immensely useful succulent at hand–you can probably source it from shops selling organic products.
Strip off the tough skin from the flat surface of the leaf and use a sharp spoon to scrape out the clear pulp. Mash it with the spoon and use the gel on the rash. The relief is almost immediate. The itching will reduce in a matter of minutes and you will see a visible reduction in the inflammation within a few hours. Store the excess gel in a glass jar and keep it I refrigerated. Repeat the application whenever you feel the need.
The powdered root of goldenseal is a very effective herbal remedy for the rashes and blisters that develop after poison ivy exposure. Mix one teaspoon of the root powder in a pint of very hot water and set it aside to cool. Apply it over the rashes with a cotton swab. The tincture of goldenseal can be directly used on the affected area. The anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial action of this herb will bring down the rashes and the blisters and prevent secondary infections.
You can drink a herbal tea of goldenseal to accelerate the healing process from the inside. Add half a teaspoon of the powdered root, or 10 drops of the tincture, to a cup of warm water and drink it up. It may taste bitter, but you can expect sweet results.
11. Witch hazel
Witch hazel extract distilled from (Hamamelis virginiana) is an effective herbal remedy for poison ivy. When applied topically, it reduces itching and inflammation, and promotes the healing of blisters. It is safe to use in young children.
12. Himalayan salt
Himalayan salt is a pink colored rock salt mined from the Himalayan foothills and plains with a whole host of benefits. Along with sodium chloride which makes its main bulk, it contains several other mineral salts, including iron oxide that imparts the characteristic color. The sulphur compounds in the salt gives it a peculiar smell and taste when dissolved in water.
Himalayan salt has been used as a skin toner and detoxifier for centuries. Its antihistaminic property is well known, which could be the main reason it helps relieve poison ivy rash. The sulfur content also may contribute to it.
Mix a teaspoon of Himalayan salt in a cup of water and spray it on the affected area or dip a washcloth in the solution and place it on the skin. A 15-minute dip in a warm water bath to which 1-2 cupful of Himalayan salt is added can ensure restful sleep through the night.
Bonus Idea: Make a plantain poultice to ease poison ivy rash. Here’s how.
Seek Medical Attention if Condition Worsens
Home remedies are the first line of treatment for poison ivy; they are almost always effective in reducing discomfort and accelerating healing. However, in cases of severe reaction to the irritant, medical attention may be necessary.
Poison ivy rash is sometimes accompanied by a slight fever owing to the immune response of the body. If the fever is too high or persistent, or if the rash is spreading or oozing pus, you should consult a physician at the earliest. If you have developed secondary infections, antibiotic treatments may be necessary.
As mentioned before, contact with the fluid from broken blisters is not likely to cause rashes in other areas of the body or in other people. The offending agent urushiol is no longer present in these blisters; they are filled with blood serum as in the case of burns. In case you continue to develop rashes, you could be getting re-exposed to urushiol from items of clothing, furniture and gardening tools or from family pets that could be carrying the allergen on their fur.
Wash all the items of clothing that are lying around, including bed linen. Wipe down furniture with dishwashing liquid and shampoo carpets and upholstery. Pets would also need a good bath.