Note: This article focuses on treatment of external poison ivy, oak, and sumac.
Before moving to Western North Carolina poison ivy was seldom an issue for me.
Since moving here seven months ago, it has claimed me as a victim twice – it’s all over here! That’s good for you because it has allowed me plenty of trial and error to discover a treatment that works.
The best treatment is to avoid exposure, but if you’ve already contracted a rash don’t worry, there is hope.
Before we get to the treatment let’s analyze several myths so we have a full understanding of the topic.
Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac Myths and Facts
1. The rash is contagious. MYTH
Fact: The rash is derived from urushiol oil secreted from poison ivy, oak, and sumac. The rash is not contagious but urushiol oil can be spread if not removed by washing.
2. Scratching and popping blisters will spread the rash. MYTH
Fact: The rash is not caused by the fluid in the blisters, it is a reaction to the urushiol oil. As long as the oil is removed it cannot be spread.
3. You’re either allergic or you’re not. MYTH
Fact: Your allergic reaction to poison ivy can develop, increase, and decrease from year-to-year, even if you’ve never had it before.
4. You can catch the rash by standing near the plants. MYTH
Fact: Direct contact with urushiol oil is the only way you can be affected. While you cannot catch poison ivy by simply standing near the plants, there is an exception: if the oil goes airborne which can happen in a fire or if the plants are run over with a lawn mower.
5. Leaves of three, let them be. MYTH
Fact: This is only true for poison ivy. Poison oak can have between three and five leaves while poison sumac has between seven and 13.
Prevention Through Identification
Prevent reactions altogether whenever possible by educating yourself and avoiding exposure.
Look at the above photo and be familiar with poison ivy, oak, and sumac so you can identify and avoid contact. Remember that poison ivy always has three leaves, poison oak has between three and five, and poison sumac between seven and 13.
When in areas of known growth, wear long clothing.
If you do come in contact, using soap and cool water to wash the urushiol oil off your body, clothes, shoes (and any other affected surfaces) as soon after exposure as possible will help you prevent the rash. Using cool water will keep your pores closed and slow your skin’s absorption of the urushiol oil. It’s debatable how soon the oil needs to be washed off to avoid the rash, some say 30 minutes, others say several hours. What is known is that you want to remove the oil as soon as possible.
If you already have the rash, read on and try the solution that worked for me, or one of the other solutions listed below.
Successful Treatment of Poison Ivy
Note: Fels Naptha has some unnatural ingredients; see list below. If you’re uncomfortable with this soap, don’t use it. An alternative is Burt’s Bees Poison Ivy Soap and I’ve listed its ingredients further down in this article.
I use Fels Naptha because it’s better at removing the oil, stopping the itch, and drying the rash than anything else I’ve tried. I have studied the ingredients and know they’re not all natural, but since I’m not leaving it on my skin, I’m comfortable using it in this application (use and rinse off immediately) the handful of times I get poison ivy each year. If you feel different please try a natural alternative. Two ingredients (underlined below) are banned for use in cosmetics but are still used in “leave-on” applications like antiperspirant/deodorant. I would NOT recommend using and leaving on skin.
I believe Fels Naptha works so well in this application because it is made to remove oil based stains (like urushiol oil).
Ingredients: soap (sodium tallowate*, sodium cocoate* (or) sodium palmate kernelate*, and sodium palmate*), water, talc, coconut acid*, palm acid*, tallow acid*, PEG-6 methyl ether, glycerin, sorbitol, sodium chloride, pentasodium pentetate and/or tetrasodium etidronate, titatium dioxide, fragrance, Acid Orange (CI 20170), Acid yellow 73 (CI 43350).
*contains one or more of these ingredients
Here’s how to best apply the treatment:
- immediately launder any and all clothing that may have come in contact with urushiol oil (our homemade laundry detergent works great)
- use Fels Naptha soap and water to remove any urushiol oil from any door knobs, tools, surfaces, etc.
- remove any urushiol oil from your body by taking a shower and applying the Fels Naptha to all affected areas and rinsing off
- scrub the affected areas with a toothbrush or washcloth to pop the blisters
- dry off and apply our antiseptic homemade deodorant to all affected areas (made of 4 oz. Everclear ethyl grain alcohol and 40 drops tea tree essential oil)
- reapply antiseptic homemade deodorant once every hour until rash dries up and begins to disappear.
You should see results within a few hours.
Using this treatment dried up my poison ivy overnight!
While these treatments were less successful for me, they have worked for many others in the past and may work for you.
Many have had success using jewelweed. My experience was that it helped relieve the itch but did nothing to help dry up the blistering rash.
Rhus Toxicodendron is a homeopathic remedy commonly taken in 30C dosages of five pellets. I tried this for three days without success. This works great for many but I recommend consulting your Naturopathic/Homeopathic Doctor so you can administer the best individual dosage for treatment.
Burt’s Bees Poison Ivy Soap
This is an all natural soap that many have success with; I had success using this soap (and applying the homemade deodorant) but the results took three days. If you are concerned about using Fels Naptha, try this instead. It didn’t work near as quick for me, but was still effective so I encourage you to try it.
Ingredients: vegetable soap base, kaolin, avena sativa (oat) kernel protein, melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) leaf oil, pinus palustris (pine) wood tar, impatiens balsamina (jewelweed) extract.
Trial and Error
Understand that not everyone will have the same experience.
The best solution for you may be different from mine, and different from the next guy. This is normal because we all have different levels of exposure, different skin types, different allergic reactions, etc.
Try the treatment that sounds best to you and see if it works. If not, try something else until you find what works best for you.
Help The Community
If you have a treatment not listed in the article, please share with the community! We’re in this together and every experience is of equal value.