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Home > Living Well > Health Library > Poison Oak and Poison Ivy Dermatitis (Holistic)
Wash the affected area with dish soap as soon as possible to limit the reaction; wash clothing, pets, and anything else that comes in contact to prevent re-exposure
Reduce skin inflammation by covering the affected area with fresh crushed plantain leaves or using a 10% ointment
Learn what poison ivy and its relatives look like so you can avoid future contact
Certain plants in the Toxicodendron (formerly Rhus) genus contain a potent resin called urushiol that, when it comes in contact with skin, can cause a severe allergic reaction in people who are sensitive to it—approximately 85% of the population, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
Plants in this group include Western poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum), Atlantic poison oak (T. pubescens), poison ivy (T. radicans), and poison sumac (T. vernix).
The skin rash caused by the plant resin urushiol is a form of "contact dermatitis." It is a red, swollen, blistering rash that is both painful and itchy. The blisters can become weepy, but the fluid from them does not spread the rash. Once developed, the rash is not contagious or spread by scratching. Scratching should nevertheless be discouraged to prevent the blisters from becoming infected. The rash can be severe but it is self-limiting, which means it will eventually resolve with no treatment. Most people seek treatment anyway for relief from the symptoms.
When it comes to poison oak and ivy, prevention is truly the best cure. An easy rhyme helps one avoid touching these plants when venturing into the forests and meadows where they grow: "Leaves of three, let them be."
Contact with poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac can be avoided by staying out of dense brush, wearing long clothes, and changing clothes after coming in contact with the plants. Dogs should be prevented from roaming freely through such areas, because they can pick up the resin on their fur and transmit it to people by direct contact or via furniture. Toxicodendron plants must never be burned because the oil can severely damage the lungs or be fatal if inhaled as smoke. The plant resin, urushiol, remains potent for years, even when the plant itself has died.
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A great many plants have been used historically to treat skin inflammations like poison oak and poison ivy dermatitis. Examples include calendula (Calendula officinalis), blood root (Sanguinaria canadensis), Virginia snakeroot (Aristolachia serpentaria), holy basil (Ocimum tenuifolium), and chickweed (Stellaria media). None of these remedies has been subjected to controlled clinical studies to determine if they are safe and effective for this use. Cooling essential oils, such as peppermint and menthol, have also been used topically to relieve burning pain and itch. Such oils should not be applied full-strength, but should rather be diluted (for example in lotion or gel) to avoid further skin irritation.
Gumweed (Grindelia spp.)is another plant popularly used to treat poison oak/ivy dermatitis. It has a long history of use, including by Native Americans, and in early-20th-century pharmaceutical preparations. There are case reports of gumweed's efficacy for poison oak dermatitis, but no published, controlled clinical trials. Apply gumweed tincture directly to the rash. It may also be mixed into marigold (Calendula officinalis) cream and applied several times a day.
Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is the most popular herbal treatment for poison oak/poison ivy dermatitis. It is widely believed that rubbing jewelweed on the exposed area within 15 minutes of exposure may prevent the rash by binding the resin. Custom advises crushing a few of the succulent leaves and stems and rubbing them on affected skin, or crushing and soaking the leaves in water and then bathing the area with the leaf-soaked water. However, most scientific studies have found jewelweed to be ineffective in treating poison oak/ivy dermatitis. Nevertheless, the efficacy of the plant continues to be supported by numerous testimonials and anecdotal reports, and is recommended in several classic botanical reference guides.
Cooling essential oils, such as peppermint and menthol, have been used topically to relieve burning pain and itch. Such oils should not be applied full-strength, but should rather be diluted (for example in lotion or gel) to avoid further skin irritation.
A great many plants have been used historically to treat skin inflammations like poison oak and poison ivy dermatitis. Examples include calendula (Calendula officinalis), blood root (Sanguinaria canadensis), Virginia snakeroot (Aristolachia serpentaria), holy basil (Ocimum tenuifolium), and chickweed (Stellaria media). None of these remedies has been subjected to controlled clinical studies to determine if they are safe and effective for this use.
Last Review: 06-08-2015
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