Leaves of three, let it be. That old saying is worth remembering when trying to identify plants that might be poison ivy, oak or sumac.
I have to admit, I have seen plants that I thought were poison ivy or poison oak , and other people said they were not. If you’re like most people, you probably don’t have your handy plant guide with you when you’re out in the woods hiking or whatever. So if you’re planning on a hiking excursion in the woods, you might check out what these pesky plants look like ahead of time. Watch this video from Gardening & More which explains how to identify poison ivy, oak and sumac.
Now that you know how to identify these plants, you can avoid them so you don’t come into contact with the urushiol that all three plants contain. Urushiol is an oil or resin that is sticky and sticks to nearly everything! You don’t even have to touch the plant to come into contact with the oil. The oil can be picked up on your pet and the resin can be transferred by the pet brushing up against you. The urushiol can even become airborne if the plants are burned and then land on your skin.
If you do come into contact with the plants, you must act quickly to minimize the rash and itch. Your best bet is to rinse the affected area in cold water within minutes of exposure. Rinse the skin over and over again. Keep rinsing! Don’t use hot water as that will open the pores and allow the urushiol to spread and penetrate. Also don’t rub the area with a cloth as that will do the same thing.
I have read some articles that say you could use baby or alcohol wipes however a master gardener told me that wipes will not remove all the oil. Continuous blotting with rubbing alcohol using a drenched cloth would do the job (again no rubbing).
Also it is important to remember to thoroughly wash clothes and any objects such as shoes or gardening tools, that may have come into contact with the poison ivy, oak or sumac. Again, that oil has a long life (like months!) and can be transferred to skin from another object by touch.
If You Develop a Rash or Blisters
In a day or two, if a rash or blisters show up, there are numerous topical remedies to try. While there are some references throughout this article, many of these remedies are anecdotal, passed down from generation to generation. When you get itching so bad that you could literally scrape your skin off, you will try every remedy you’ve ever heard about just to stop the itch! So then, how do you know which one(s) really worked?
At that point, it may not matter to some. Something relieved the itch and that’s all that counts.
Should you get caught or exposed to poison ivy, oak or sumac, you might try any and all of these remedies (see below for details):
1) Aloe Vera Gel – Aloe has moisturizing as well as anti-inflammatory and healing properties. Break off a leaf of an aloe plant and apply the gel from the leaves to the skin for cooling and soothing action. You can also purchase aloe gel if you don’t have a plant.
2) Apple Cider Vinegar (organic) – Apply apple cider vinegar full strength to the area. You might even soak a cloth and apply as a compress. Vinegar is thought to have drawing properties so may help draw out the irritating toxins and it can also remove the sting.
3) Baking Soda Paste – Mix 3-4 parts household baking soda to one part water or coffee until it makes a paste. Apply to the affected area to relieve itching. You can also soak in a bathtub with cool water and dump in a box of baking soda.
4) Banana – I found a reference for using the inside of a banana peel to relieve the itch. It recommended using hot water and rubbing the inner peel on the affected skin. An article and a master gardener I talked with advised against using hot water however. That’s because hot water opens the pores, letting even more of the resin into the skin. Rubbing the banana inner peel on the skin for the cooling effect would be okay however. If you’re on a hiking trip, you very well might have a banana with you.
5) Burdock Root Tea – Burdock tea can be used to make a soothing compress. Use 3 tablespoons of burdock root per cup of water and steep in a muslin or cotton bag. Soak a clean cotton cloth in the tea and apply the compress to the skin repeatedly.
6) Calendula – Calendula is an anecdotal remedy used for skin inflammations and dermatitis caused from poison ivy, oak or sumac. Calendula has not been tested in a clinical study according to the University of Michigan Health System, though it is still pretty popular. Calendula comes in spray, ointment and lotion form for easy use. Calendula spray is a homeopathic spray made of calendula flower extract.
7) Castor Oil – Castor oil is known as the “Hand of Christ” with drawing properties. Castor oil will draw out toxins, poisons, etc, as well as supports the immune system and is a natural anti-inflammatory. Soak organic flannel cotton in castor oil and apply as a castor oil pack to the itching area.
8) Herbal Compress with Chamomile, Peppermint & Sage – This cooling herbal compress recipe comes from Mountain Rose Herbs. A cold compress will help to reduce inflammation since the cold helps to constrict blood vessels.
9) Himalayan Crystal Salt – I had not heard of this one before but this article made sense to me in that poison ivy/oak causes the skin to become red and weeping. Salt is drying and healing. It is recommended to make a paste with salt and purified water or taking a bath (adding a cup of Himalayan salt) for 20 minutes or longer. Himalayan salt should be available in a natural grocery store in larger quantities too.
10) Jewelweed – Jewelweed is another anecdotal poison ivy remedy. Strangely enough, jewelweed (also called touch-me-not) often grows near poison ivy. Crush the leaves & flowers and rub them on the skin to release the juice which has anti-inflammatory properties. Jewelweed may also be available in skin care products like this Poison Ivy & Oak Soap Bar. There is a pilot study of 10 subjects however that determined jewelweed was not effective in treating poison ivy/oak.
11) Magnesium Oil – When blisters appear, another home remedy is to scratch the blister open and rub magnesium oil into the area. Anecdotal references say the blister should dry up and disappear within a few hours.
12) Oatmeal Paste or Bath – Dermatologists are now recommending an oatmeal bath or paste to relieve the itch. Check out the video below by Dermatologist Dr. Doris Day which mixes one cup oatmeal, one cup whole milk, 1/4 cup manuka honey, and a little aloe to mix and add to bath water to soak in. If you have a small area of blisters, I would probably make it a thicker paste. Decrease the milk and just apply it to the affected skin rather than bathing in it. Apply the paste for at least 20 minutes a few times per day.
13) Turmeric & Lemon Juice – Turmeric is a potent antioxidant and has incredible healing properties as well. Mix one part turmeric to one part lemon juice to make a paste. Apply to the affected skin for at least 15 minutes. It may sting a bit but is thought to help the rash diminish within 24 hours. Be careful with the paste though as it will stain (the turmeric is bright mustard yellow color).
14) Watermelon Rind – A couple sources recommended lightly rubbing the watermelon rind and meat over the area and letting it air dry. It is supposed to be improved within a day.
15) Witch Hazel – Witch Hazel has well-known cooling, itch-relieving properties and is a cleansing astringent too. Witch hazel can be found in most health stores. If you don’t need it urgently, here is a recipe for herbal-infused witch hazel that may be helpful for poison ivy/oak/sumac contact or other irritating skin conditions.
Will these home remedies work for you? I can’t say for sure. Luckily, I have never encountered poison ivy, oak or sumac that I know of. If I did, I am not allergic to the urushiol, at least yet! However, my opinion is that there are many anecdotal or folk medicines that do work and are certainly worth trying.
If one of these remedies worked for you (or combination), let us know by commenting below. Or if you have another home remedy that worked for you, please share below for our natural-minded readers!