Q. I recently returned from a camping trip in the mountains where I caught a bad case of poison ivy. I am sitting here itching and oozing, and my hand is swollen up so I can barely hold the pen. It has even spread to my private parts.

I’ve tried a couple of over-the-counter lotions but nothing seems to be helping very much. Neither the calamine nor the hydrocortisone stopped the itching and the other poison ivy remedy almost seems to be making it worse.

Is there anything on the market that really works for poison ivy?

A. We’re not surprised that calamine and hydrocortisone have offered little relief. Renowned dermatologists such as Albert Kligman, MD, Howard Maibach, MD and Jere Guin, MD, believe that when it comes to poison ivy, “OTC hydrocortisone is useless” and calamine lotion “is innocuous but is not really beneficial.”

They also warn patients to avoid ivy preparations with the topical antihistamine diphenhydramine because it may make the rash worse. Despite popular belief, these doctors don’t recommend scrubbing with strong soap. Washing with lots of plain water or wiping with alcohol may be helpful, but only if it’s done within the first five minutes after contact.

A severe case of poison ivy like yours deserves prescription medicine. A dermatologist can determine whether you need a high-powered cortisone cream such as betamethasone (Diprolene) or clobetasol (Temovate) or a short course of oral prednisone.

Some people get relief from a mild case of poison ivy (or a bug bite) by putting the affected skin under hot water for a second or two. The water should be hot enough to be slightly painful but not so hot that it will burn. A very short exposure can take away the itch for a couple of hours.

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  1. dodie

    Zanfel (Expensive) !! … did Not work for me but the old school calamine lotion did !

  2. Marla

    Hello. Ive read a million comments from everywhere and there are soo many things one can use that I must have tried 10 right off the bat, some of them my own remedies… however I am still in pain and itch like mad! No one ever talks about what works AFTER you catch a bad case (not catching it right away) ALL over your body and when you already suffer from exzema. I am on day 8/9 with poison oak and its hell! I am swollen on my knees so bad that I cant walk well and I purchased HYLAND”S Poison Ivy/Oak pills that dissolve under the tongue to help relieve itchy skin and dry up the poisons…I use them every two hours as directed and for a bit seems to help but I was in so much agony that I finally resorted in apple cidar vinegar!! YES I went there! Cotton pads and a section at a time ..my body shook with pain!!! I had all parts of legs and arms covered and then did it twice and three times, each time it was less painful and then rinsed with some beauty water (got from a friend who sells the stuff) then applied calamine lotion. As of this am i am feeling 50 percent better …the swelling down by 50 percent and drying out but as I stated drying out while sensitive skin or eczema person this is painful! We already have dry skin so my legs and arms look like the Cript keeper!! I applied vinegar again this am and that takes the itch away and I believe I had an infection starting up so its helped but be prepared if doing vinegar on open scratches… IT WILL HURT BEYOND… If you cant handle pain I wouldn’t suggest it. Ok so my thought is that everyones body reacts differently to different things and unfortunately we have to get the stuff to know whats best on it. The dish soap was bad for me with eczema… it inflamed me worse. I used acne med right away and jewelweed fresh picked soothed it and felt it penetrate it but never could tell what actually dried it out whether a combination of sorts or my opinion…? Made it worse doing too much! ( easy to do when desperate) I have scratched and spread new areas also so Im dealing with new and old poison on my skin. I have it now on my back, and chest and chin as wll as legs and arms ..both sides! I haven’t gone to the hospital yet, hoping to get this done naturally! Thanks for all the advice of cures… I think the Technu and other things I will try if I ever get it again but my landscaping days with poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac are done! Not even long pants hats etc will change my mind, I’m a mother of 7 and this is worse then my horrible childbirth I had 7 times!!!! My suggestion to the reader, wash with the dawn dish soap or a poison Ivy/ Oak bar (found in health stores) and then HOT water shower or bath , pat dry with paper towels from oozing blisters, apply vinegar(Apple cidar or white) … If skin still itches, apply more vinegar and baking soda or get pills from health store or these other suggested meds like Technu. To get to sleep, take a HOT as you can stand bath or shower then apply calamine lotion…oh and I did try aloe… that is wonderful for relief of the scratched skin! Thanks for listening. :/

  3. Doc Woodsman

    Like the author said – Betamethasone cream. It really works, get it from your doc. You want to put it on at the first sign of poison ivy, it will keep it from spreading.

  4. jj

    Once you have an outbreak, Monkey Butt Powder really helps to dry it up. It also helps to keep your clothing from rubbing against the rash, improving itching.

  5. Wendy

    Thank you for your feedback. I will start trying these remedies first thing in the morning since I go into one of the ‘poisons’. Of course I didn’t realize it until the symptoms showed up with a vengeance about 8 days later. Though I am on prednisone, mometazone ointment, and a strong anti itch pill, I continue to wake up at 3am with itchy arms and legs. I will post again on what worked best for me but have already ordered Tecnu to keep with me.

  6. Fredrick

    Four years ago, I moved to a house with poison oak everywhere around it. Of course I got it, and not just one time. I experimented with everything I could get my hands on, and now I know what to do.
    A/ If I was touched by the plant, I try to wash it off immediately. Just plain water denatures the oil. If I am not around water, I use spit to denature it.
    B/ Next, I kind of drop whatever I was doing, and I walk to the house to get dish soap. I let the dish soap sit on my skin, all the way till it is dry.
    If I did these two steps within about ten minutes, I know I am going to be fine, even to the point I now (sometimes) pick new growth of poison oak out of the ground with my bare hands. Yes, it used to pester me for two weeks before the pain was gone, so I am still not too eager to touch it, but I know I can get away with it.
    If the itch disappears and then later comes back (often in milder forms of itching), I add more dish soap to the spot (I do not wash it with water first anymore), and let it dry in. Hardly ever (but it has happened) did I have to apply a third layer of dish soap when the itch reappeared later on.
    The parts of my body that do not like dish soap drying up into my skin are my face and the insides of my elbows, so I wash it with water, and apply dish soap only once (and hope for the best).
    If the poison oak has penetrated the skin really deep already, try the dish soap. If it helps relieve the pain and itching, then you know it is able to reach the poisonous oil in your skin and denatures it, and you can later use more dish soap. If nothing happens within half an hour of the first use, then it is probably too late to be effective.
    I would then numb the pain using ice cubes. Keep the ice cubes on the skin for as long as you can bear the cold, and you should be okay for several hours (for me, this was 6 hours, but I never have poison oak moving to these severe states anymore).
    My partner laughs about me now, because I grab that dish soap bottle at least once a weekend (I am in the yard whenever I can), and tells anyone who wants to hear I am like that Fat Greek Wedding guy with the Glassex as cure-it-all.

  7. jesse m.

    I live in the North GA Mountain’s where poison oak is very common. I recently working in my yard getting our ditch cleaned out and got covered in Poison oak and now my whole dang body is covered. Both of my arms -neck stomach-legs -face- and eye lids. Help please. Does anybody have any ideas?

  8. R>M>

    My biggest mistake was having a glass of wine a couple of times during my outbreak. BIG mistake! That made me very, very nauseous and bloated. But there are things you learn… stuff that makes it worse and stuff that makes it better. I have no doubt that baking soda and treatments that are more base are good. Besides the alcohol, I had way more itching after eating sweet things, like grapes or jam.
    Staying low carb seems to help. And I would be curious to know if the minimum recommended dosage of beta carotene helps anybody… this is drying the lesions up for me. My thinking was that Vitamin A is good for the skin. I had PI on the backs of my hands, my forearms and a nasty spot on my foot.

  9. MissItchyForTooLong

    Try using Tea Tree Oil or something just as equally great Guggul … all found in local drug stores and other well known shopping marts

  10. poison ivy treatment

    I don’t know about on the market but mixed up oatmeal (into a paste) seems to work good for me, it reduces the itchiness and slowly reduces the bumps.

  11. beau10

    Re Gail’s comment re ‘Dawn’ detergent: I grew up with poison oak and 15 years ago moved out of state to my present property and poison ivy. I have to continually dig-out recurring poison ivy and heard of the “wash the area of contact immediately several times w/ the detergent” advice. It has worked for me, but my basic paranoia forces me to wash and rinse, wash and rinse, wash and rinse for about ten times. It’s been successful for me and I’ve never had a breakout.

    • JP

      Been around nature? (yay!) Starting to get itchy? (of course! it’s nature! yay!) Itchy skin bump (kind of like a mosquito bite), but with swelling that is not circular – more of a swelling along a line on exposed skin?

      The description is of a reaction to urushiol, the oil that causes a histamine reaction with contact on human skin. The rash will progressively get worse for 1-3 weeks before it gets better. Children tend to react more strongly than adults. People that have reacted to poison ivy in their past are more likely to react quickly to contact with urushiol.

      Deal with possible urushiol contact ASAP:
      1. Get some soap (or detergent).
      2. Get a washcloth (or other scrubbing device).
      3. Locate yourself near a source of water.
      4. Using the soap and water, lather up any skin that was exposed (starting with both hands), scrub the lathered area with the washcloth, and rinse. Repeat twice more.

  12. Anne

    My son in NC is allergic to poison oak, found that witch hazel worked best if you rub or scratched the blisters off before applying. They were gone the next day. He had been suffering for over 10 years before he discovered this.

  13. P, Grossmann

    I keep Technu on my sink and use it if I have been gardening. You wash with it and if you get it early enough the poison dries up quickly. You need to wash with it frequently and it will go away in a matter of days. I’ve given it to friends who had bad cases and they thanked me for providing it. I haven’t had a case in years. My landscapers say they keep a bottle in their truck.

  14. jack C

    I am allergic to poison OAK (on the East coast of the USA), and being a farmer I find it every day under foot. I’ve learned to recognize it immediately, and whenever touched and I’m away from a water source as a creek, I spit on the area and rub it off. In three years I’ve avoided an outbreak tho I’ve had multiple contacts. To prove to myself that water alone is the key I’ve pulled a vine out of the ground and within 10 minutes rubbed my hands under a running outdoor faucet.
    The Native American ‘balance’ (I’m from Scotland) to poison oak in the mountains is Jewel Weed which is very effective applied to the affected skin.
    My young blonde daughter can be close to it and breaks out, but uses a homeopathic pre- and post- treatment by Newton- ‘Rhus Toxicodendron’ which she swears by.

  15. RLH

    Several years ago I got a horrible case of poison ivy. I was going crazy with itching even after taking steroids. I even tried the hot shower method but it didn’t work for me. I searched and found an answer in a peoples pharmacy book. I microwaved wet towels until they were so hot I almost couldn’t stand it and placed them on the affected area. It worked exactly as the book said it would! The heat scrambles the nerve endings for four hours and sure enough after four hours to the minute I started itching again. The relief was sweet, allowed me to get some sleep and it saved my sanity!
    When I know that I have been exposed I come into the house, strip immediately (putting the clothes into the washer by themselves and wash on hot) and take a shower rubbing liquid dish soap all over. It has always worked. I have never gotten a rash after exposure after using this method but it only works if you do it very soon after exposure!

  16. gail

    I just read that dishwashing soap such as Dawn used initially to wash down the affected area, rinsed off, dried and then again applied and left to dry is a great way of cancelling the bad effects of poison ivy. Haven’t tried it myself so don’t know if it works but allegedly there is something in the soap that counteracts the itch causing properties of poison ivy.

  17. Nancy D

    Some years ago I had a “systemic” case of poison ivy — meaning it was in my blood-stream, & it took 8 weeks before it was completely gone. What an ordeal!! However, I found that ZANFEL poison ivy cream made a huge difference in the agony of the outbreaks. The other thing I used was a product called TECNU Outdoor Skin Cleanser. It was the only other thing that would assist with the itch — it is best used immediately after exposure to the poison-ivy oils. If used it will break down the oil and wash it away… I keep both products on hand now….just in case!

  18. Faye

    Buy Old Spice stick deodorant (white only) and rub it on your poison ivy. You can use it on the face and your whole body. It will stop the itching almost immediately and in a couple of days, your poison ivy will be almost gone.

  19. Loucando

    Several years ago I had a bad case of poison ivy and didn’t want to go to doctor. After searching on-line, I found recommendations for Zanfel, an OTC remedy I found at Wal-Mart. It’s expensive, over $35 but it worked. I used 3 tubes but after the 3rd tube, it worked. I wondered if I would have used it first instead of suffering for several days it would have worked with the first tube. Anyway, I bought a tube to keep on hand as it has a long storage life.

  20. B.C.

    I had bad cases of poison ivy years ago…. it didn’t last long because Mother dabbed Sheep Dip on each one. This sounds so simple considering all the antibiotics, creams etc. here today but it really works!

  21. beau10

    I do not know if my grandmother’s home remedies for poison oak would work for poison ivy, but what she used on me, sisters and cousins for poison oak was vinegar, oatmeal and baking soda. She applied the white vinegar directly to the rash to take the itch out (takes a couple of minutes for effect). She also mixed oatmeal, baking soda and vinegar to form a paste and then applied the paste directly to the rash. It required about three days of treatment to get rid of it.

  22. Julie

    For poison ivy – even very bad cases – I have discovered that the most effective remedy is repeated applications of moist baking soda. Then let it dry and as it does, it dries the blisters. I discovered this years ago when I have a horrible case of poison ivy all over both legs and arms.
    Shortly after I got it I was scheduled to spend a weekend at the beach. I went to the shore not knowing if the heat would be tolerable. I kept getting in and out of the water (salt water of course) and by the end of the weekend my poison ivy had almost entirely dried out.
    I realized it was because of the reverse osmosis of the salt water repeatedly being “applied” to my skin and dried. So next time I got poison ivy I tried to re-create the effect with moist baking soda and it worked. It is very messy and not nearly as much fun as getting in and out of the ocean but when the itching drives you crazy, it is a worthy remedy.

  23. Gail

    I use Noxizema to stop the itch.

  24. Steve

    I usually get at least a small outbreak of poison ivy each week when I do the lawn chores. For me, the hot water treatment is the most effective, and pleasurable, way to get relief. The feeling is sublime when the heat (almost unbearably hot) of the water hits the blisters. And the itching does not recur for hours.

  25. Cindy B.

    Vaporub {Vick’s or generic} helps greatly with any source of itching. We have found that making a strong tea with local manzanita leaves and soaking the affected skin in it helps it dry up much faster.

  26. John

    I have had very good relief from itching by using vinegar applied using a cotton ball that was first soaked with vinegar. I wish I would have known about this 40 years ago.

  27. alxzba

    I have had excellent results using Witch Hazel, applying to the rash every 4 hours or so. Itch is relieved and rash dries up.

  28. Jerry

    I’ve found it very useful to wash with Dawn Dishwashing Soap whenever I have been exposed to Poison Ivy. If I do get a breakout and it is oozing, I pour some Dawn Dishwashing Liquid over the area in the hottest water I can stand. I find this helps me most. There is an over the counter product made by Tecnu that is also very effective for exposure to Poison Ivy.

  29. lynda

    I live in an area where it’s poison oak, not poison ivy that’s the culprit but I think the body’s response is the same. I lived in an area for 11 years where it was all around, impossible to avoid it if you went into the countryside.
    Having followed many of Adele Davis’ recommendations, I would make certain to take a large amount of Vitamin C before possible exposure, and if exposed (direct contact) I would take more when I got home, and add zinc as I found they worked better together in such circumstances.
    I did use soap, but only Fels Naptha, not a beauty bar as the fats in the soap only made the oils spread. An old man who had lived his entire life in the mountains made a tonic of a tea from the uva ursi (bearberry) manzanita leaves and something else which many people swore was the best thing they’d used.
    I thought the extreme alkalinity of the ‘tea’ was probably one reason for its success.
    The local native americans had two responses: The first was that the higher the percentage of pure native american blood the person was the less their reaction to poison oak. The second was that nature provided balances and if something hurt you, then something in the area would help heal you.
    An area known as Bald Hills was half covered in poison oak—and wild roses which produced very large (and a large supply) of rose hips. As it was on the reservation I asked for and received permission to harvest some of the rose hips. Poison oak turns pink then red in the fall and it is at this time it is the most dangerous. At the same time, the rose hips turn red (the blossoming over) and that’s the time to pick them. We gathered at least five pounds which dried down to almost two. Some were used in teas for drinking or topical use.
    I live in Los Angeles now, so no wild rose hips to gather but if I go hiking in the local mountains, I do take my Vitamin C before and after… and I’m more concerned about my allergic reactions to chemicals in common products (I react to propylene glycol in all forms).

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