Early fall is the ideal time for hikes and camping trips, thanks to milder weather and fewer crowds than during the summer months. Most outdoor lovers go prepared with comfortable shoes, sturdy tents and even first aid kits, but one thing often goes overlooked. If you are one of the 85% of people who will have an allergic reaction when exposed to poison ivy, oak or sumac, you must know how to treat your symptoms quickly and effectively.
Outsmarting the Itch
What actually makes these plants poisonous? Urushiol, a chemical in the sap, is responsible for the common allergic reaction causing a rash, blisters and severe itching. Urushiol can easily be transferred to clothing or equipment, and will retain its potency for years if the items are not washed thoroughly. However, you have a short window of opportunity to take action before urushiol penetrates the skin.
If you spot the notorious 3-leafed ivy stems, and you know your skin has been in contact with this poison plant, you have about 10 minutes to wash the chemical off before an allergic reaction develops. First wipe the exposed area with generous amounts of rubbing alcohol from your first aid kit and rinse well with plain water. I recommend that you don’t use soap right away, as this may spread the chemical over more of your skin. After rinsing, take a shower as you normally would.
Relief for Itching
If poison ivy takes you by surprise, there are many natural ways to treat the symptoms at home. In fact, these methods may also be used to treat itching caused by other factors. The poison ivy rash will generally appear 12 to 48 hours after exposure, and blisters and itching will follow shortly. Although scratching cannot spread the rash, opening the blisters may lead to a bacterial infection, so do your best to keep your hands off.
Calamine lotion, the classic stand-by for poison ivy and itchy rashes, may not be the best solution. Calamine tends to dry out skin, making it even itchier. Keep the skin moist by taking frequent cool baths, using gentle non-deodorant soaps, and applying unscented moisturizer made for sensitive skin.
If calamine doesn’t work, how do you relieve the itch? Cold compresses bring a lot of relief, and should be used as often as you can for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. To make this treatment even more effective, soak the clean cloths in water and vinegar solution or a water and baking soda solution. You can also mix baking soda with a small amount of water to make a paste and apply it to the infected area.
Oral antihistamines, such as Benadryl, also relieve itching. Over the counter hydrocortisone creams, such as Cortaid or Lanacorte, may soothe itching quickly and temporarily. If blisters have already formed, however, these topical itch creams are probably too weak to help much. Products that will help the irritating blisters include kaolin, a clay-like mineral substance, aluminum hydroxide gel, zinc acetate, zinc carbonate, or zinc oxide.
Although the itch is difficult to tolerate, the poison ivy rash should go away in 14 to 20 days. In the meantime, treat your skin gently and try the solutions I outlined above. I hope you never need to treat a case of poison ivy, but knowing what to do if you, a friend or a family member are exposed should provide peace of mind when you venture to the great outdoors this fall.