As an only child for almost a decade, I spent a lot of time playing by myself outdoors, making up games and jumping into the brush and plucking flowers. I’d run around in fields until sunset and climb trees and dream up stories of faerie rings.
One summer, I came home with a red rash that was rapidly spreading from my arms down my side. I was rushed to the emergency room when it spread inside my throat. Large brownish-red masses swallowed up my face and my eyes were swelled shut and covered in lumpy welts. It was the start of a lifelong relationship I’d go on to have with poison ivy.
At least once per summer I’d get a serious reaction to poison ivy, and during the healing process I would have to stay home from school (mostly because I was contagious, but also because I looked like an alien).
My mother would cleanse and gently apply both calamine and medicated lotion to my whole body. I was also given steroids. It was frustrating, painful, itchy, embarrassing, and exhausting. Imagine being itchy ALL DAY LONG. It’s torturous, and it usually lasts—unless there’s quick intervention—around two to three weeks.
So what’s responsible for the rash? Urushiol, the compound inside of poison ivy (and poison sumac and oak, and even parts of the mango tree) causes the skin irritation. Depending on the amount of urushiol oil you get on your skin (and whether or not you touch other parts of your body or take a shower after being near or in a heavily poison ivy-filled area), you may experience a massive rash outbreak or just a small patch or two. My brother, for example, would catch poison ivy from me—but he’d only experience a few small lumps. You could say I was jealous.
As I got older and learned how to differentiate between certain flowers and plants (poison ivy tends to have little hair-like follicles at the base or red or yellow patches or lines on the leaves), I was affected less often. However, at least once every few years, I still get a nice reminder of poison ivy by waking up with a patch—usually on my neck, hands, upper arms, or back. It’s contagious, can knock you out, and can spread easily—so by now I have an arsenal of natural ways to treat it:
According to the journal MedGenMed, poison ivy rash irritation can be reduced by using Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV)—my favorite go-to for all sorts of ailments, including shingles (yep, I can speak to that as well). I soak a rag in cool water and ACV (you want to dilute the ACV so it’s not too acidic, though I tend to prefer a little less water and little more ACV), and then apply it as a compress against the rash. You can put two parts water to one part ACV as a start.
I’ve got more memories of soaking in an oatmeal bath than I’d like to admit! The stuff works, but it might turn you off of oatmeal for breakfast for life. According to the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, oatmeal has long been a key player (as in, for centuries) in skin-soothing remedies. It’s believed to relieve itchiness and irritation—mostly due to its starch and beta-glucan, which are skin-protective compounds. It also contains phenols, which deliver antioxidant powers. To use, grind oatmeal into a fine powder (most blenders will do this for you) and pour about two-three cups into a half-filled bath.
I prefer to use cool or lukewarm water (since hot water can majorly aggravate itchiness). Sitting for about a half an hour, making sure to immerse myself, really helps. I also like to pat the oatmeal directly onto my poison ivy-covered skin to let it work its magic. Rinse off, pat dry, clean the tub, and throw out the residue. (Oh, and be sure to quarantine the towel you use, as the poison ivy oils can stick to fabric.)
Witch Hazel is an incredible wellness tool—it can be used as a cleansing agent, and is painless when applied to irritated or wounded skin. Because witch hazel is an astringent, it promotes the skin’s process of healing. I like to use it (especially for very small patches of poison ivy) by pouring it onto a small towel, applying it directly to the area for a few minutes. This is especially helpful when the skin is weeping or feeling super-aggravated.
I swear by this remedy—and it’s always served me well! When my poison ivy blisters are open or weeping, I’ll mix about four tablespoons of baking soda into a small glass of water. When it becomes a thick, gooey consistency, I’ll apply it (like a paste) right over the skin. I tend to do this several times a day, especially in the early stages of poison ivy. I also cover the area with a light wrap or gauze to keep the paste intact.
And, just like the oatmeal bath, it’s a good idea to pour a little baking soda into the tub and let the concoction do its magic. You may want to mix the baking soda and the oatmeal together for an ultra-powerful blend of poison ivy-fighting goodness.