Poison Ivy and Oak Treatment
Poison ivy and oak are members of a plant family that includes poison wood (an itch-causing plant found in Florida) and poison sumac, according to W. Hardy Eshbaugh, Ph.D., a retired botanist in Oxford, Ohio. “Some other members of the same plant family can cause a rash in some people,” Dr. Eshbaugh says. “The skin of a mango can be irritating to sensitive skin. And Chinese lacquerware boxes can cause a poison-ivy-like rash.” When the itchy rash sets in, you want to know how to treat poison ivy an oak fast. But it’s also important to understand the cause and how to prevent it.
“You can get the same kind of dermatitis from the shells of raw cashews,” notes Kathryn A. Zug, M.D., a dermatologist at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
The culprit in all these plants is a potent chemical called urushiol. Seven out of 10 people are allergic to it, you can get a rash from just one-billionth gram of the stuff, and it remains potent on garden tools and other surfaces for up to five years. No wonder urushiol is the champion of all allergens—the cause of more allergies than any other known substance.
You needn’t stay out of the fields and woods, though. Here are some remedies to help you cure poison ivy and oak.
Get the Poison Off Fast
“The best treatment for poison ivy or oak is to wash with soap in the shower within 5 to 15 minutes of exposure to the plant,” Dr. Zug says. In other words, you need to wash off
the urushiol long before you see a rash. This is possible, of course, only if you realize your mistake while you’re in the woods. Rubbing alcohol also might work. “Rubbing alcohol is a solvent that, in order to be effective, must be applied and washed off with a washcloth soon after contact with the plant,” Dr. Zug says.
Put Yourself in the Pink
“Calamine lotion is still one of the best treatments for moderate cases of poison ivy,” says Robert Averill, M.D., a dermatologist in western Massachusetts and northern New Hampshire.
“It’s the classic treatment for poison ivy,” Dr. Zug agrees. “Calamine dries up blisters, it is soothing and cooling, and it relieves the itch.”
Vinegar Works, Too
A vinegar compress is good for drying the rash and soothing the itching, says Robert Sommer, M.D., a dermatologist in Portland, Maine. “Use half a cup of white vinegar. Pour it into a pint container and add water up to the pint mark. Put it in the refrigerator; it works best cold.” Dampen a cloth or gauze with the cold vinegar solution and apply it to the rash, Dr. Sommer says.
Use Milk to Shake the Itch
Dr. Sommer also recommends a cold milk compress, especially if you have poison ivy on your face, which can be irritated by vinegar. “You take a clean rag and soak it in whole milk. You need whole milk for the fat,” he says. “Place the damp rag—damp, not runny—on the rash. Leave it on for 10 to 15 minutes. The cold stops the itch, while the fat lubricates the skin.” Dr. Sommer says to rinse off the milk with