Growing up surrounded by woodlands, I wasn’t a stranger to the itchy, red rashes that appear after an afternoon of building stick forts. You could say poison ivy was my arch nemesis.
It caused multiple ruined yearbook photos, in which I looked like I just went a few rounds with Rocky. It was responsible for my first trip to the emergency room. And let’s not forget the endless oatmeal baths.
As a kid who didn’t get sick often and loved the outdoors, a bad case of poison ivy seemed like the end of the world.
Fortunately, I got wiser with age and picked up a thing or two over the years.
How to identify poison ivy
The best way to avoid the effects of poison ivy is by learning to identify it. Yes, poison ivy has three leaves, but it can be hard to recognize as it comes in many forms.
Poison ivy may be shiny or dull. Its leaf margins may be toothed or wavy or have no teeth at all. The leaves can be hairy or have no hairs. It can take the form of a shrub, climbing vine or grow in large colonies on the ground.
Poison ivy can vary in appearance, but it always has compound leaves with three leaflets. They range from two to five inches long and are green during the growing season and turn red in the fall. In the spring, poison ivy flowers and produces clusters of white berries that ripen from late summer and into winter.
When in doubt, don’t touch it!
How to avoid poison ivy
Once you learn to identify poison ivy, avoiding it will be much easier.
You don’t want to touch any part of the plant. An oily resin called urushiol, which is found in all parts of the plant, causes skin rashes when you come into contact with it. It is easily transferred to clothing, skin, tools or pet’s fur. Even contact with contaminated items can cause skin reactions later.
Additionally, Urushiol can be transmitted through the air. That’s why it’s important not to burn poison ivy or wood with poison ivy vines growing on it. The smoke from burning the plant contains urushiol and can irritate your lungs, nasal passages, skin and eyes.
Identifying and staying away from the plant is the best way to avoid poison ivy, but there are a couple other things you can try. Keeping your skin covered in wooded areas and plots of disturbed land with overgrown brush by wearing pants and long sleeves can reduce your risk. Additionally, washing any exposed skin after enjoying nature may prevent an outbreak.
Poison ivy rashes
Sometimes contact with the plant is unavoidable. If you’ve come into contact with poison ivy you’ll probably experience redness, itching, swelling, blisters and potentially difficulty breathing if you’ve inhaled its oil. Symptoms usually show up 12 to 48 hours after contact.
Whatever you do, don’t scratch your rash. Bacteria from under your fingernails can further contaminate it and cause infection.
In all my years of getting and treating poison ivy, nothing has worked better than the spotted jewelweed plant. It doesn’t just relieve the itching sensation, it dries up the rash quickly without drying out your surrounding skin. Additionally, it’s easy to find and in bloom at the same time as poison ivy.
The spotted jewelweed grows three to five feet tall and blooms from late spring to early fall. It is easily distinguished by its small orange flowers. Its stems are somewhat translucent, succulent and may have swollen or darkened nodes. Its leaves appear silvery when submerged under water.
The juice contained in its leaves and stem relieve the itching and dry up the blisters caused by poison ivy. When I’ve used it in the past I’ve found that peeling the stem open and gently dabbing the inside on the rash works well. Rubbing spotted jewelweed leaves on an affected area also works well.
Recovery time, in my experience, was usually two to three days after I started applying the spotted jewelweed. It always worked much faster than over-the-counter creams and sprays.
As an annual plant native to North America, you can find the spotted jewelweed growing in boggier areas such as ditches and along creeks.
Other natural remedies
Other natural remedies used to treat poison ivy rashes include:
- Cucumbers. Cucumbers have the ability to soothe the rash because of a natural cooling effect. You can apply slices directly to the rash and wrap them with gauze to keep them in place or you can make a paste by mashing them up.
- Banana peels. I’ve never tried it, but I’ve heard of people having luck soothing poison ivy rashes by rubbing the insides of banana peels on them.
- Baking soda. My mom mostly used the baking soda paste to relieve bee and wasp stings, but it can also be used on poison ivy rashes for a similar effect. Just mix three teaspoons of baking soda for every teaspoon of water and make a paste thick enough to stay in place when it’s applied. Cover your rash, liberally, and let the paste dry and flake off on its own. Find more information on treating bee and wasp stings with home remedies here.
- Oatmeal. Oatmeal baths are a pretty common way to relieve poison ivy rashes. However, if you don’t feel like soaking in oatmeal, you can also cook plain oatmeal to make a paste to apply directly to your rash.
- Aloe vera. Just like it relieves sunburns, aloe vera takes away the burning effect caused by poison ivy rashes.
- Cold compress. Applying a cold compress can relieve the burning and itching that comes with a poison ivy rash.
- Witch hazel. Witch hazel can be used to soothe the rash by reducing its swelling and relieving its itching and burning.
When to seek medical attention
According to the FDA, if you have any of the following symptoms, you need to seek medical attention immediately:
- You have trouble breathing or swallowing.
- You have a temperature over 100 F.
- Your rash spreads to your eyes, mouth, genital area or covers more than 25 percent of your body.
- Your rash has pus, soft yellow scabs or tenderness — indications of an infection.
- Your rash is not improving within a few weeks.
- The itching gets worse or keeps you awake at night.