The People's Perspective on Medicine

What Can You Do About Poison Ivy?

The best approach to poison ivy is avoidance! Stay away from the leaves and stems, and wash up well with soap and water if you have gotten close.
Credit DG

This is a scary time of year for millions of people who are sensitive to urushiol. That is the scientific name for the resin found on the leaves, stems or roots of poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. As many as 50 to 75 percent of American adults are sensitive to poison ivy, oak or sumac (Dermatitis, May/June 2019).

What Is the Problem with Poison Ivy?

Contact with this compound can lead to red, itchy patches that can range from mildly irritating to life threatening. People who breathe in smoke that contains urushiol can end up in the emergency department because of severe breathing problems.

Most people who are sensitive to poison ivy try very hard to avoid plants with the classic three-leafed pattern. Even if you don’t touch these leaves, though, you can still develop bumps, blisters and itching. That’s because your clothing may come into contact with the leaves while you are gardening or walking in the woods.

One woman told us about a terrible mistake she made after brushing up against poison ivy leaves. She was highly sensitive and realized immediately that she needed to remove her clothes before entering her house. Unfortunately, she sat on them while taking off her boots. If she had immediately taken a shower, she probably would have been OK. The rash she experienced was extremely unpleasant.

Poison Ivy Resin Can Spread from Animal Fur:

Cats, dogs and other animals can rub against poison ivy plants while they are outside.

One reader wrote:

“Three days before going on vacation my husband got poison ivy…from our dog. How do we know this? When my husband fishes our pup will wander off for short periods of time and come back and sit between his feet. The poison ivy was spread from the tops of his socks to the bottom of his shorts.”

Pets can bring urushiol inside on their fur. If you pet your buddy, you now have the irritating compound on your hands. It can be easily spread all over your body from this secondary contact. This may be a compelling reason to wash your hands well after caressing your pet.

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Soap Is the First Line of Defense Against Poison Ivy:

If you know you have come into contact with urushiol, wash it off ASAP! In grandma’s day, people would have used brown laundry soap. Today we have Zanfel Poison Ivy Wash or Tecnu Outdoor Skin Cleanser. Such products can often prevent the itchy rash by removing the resin from your skin before it can cause damage. IvyX can be put on before going outside. It is a barrier cream that can partially protect the skin. It also makes it easier to wash off the resin.

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FEG reported:

My mother believed and I have found that if you wash with a strong soap very well after being exposed to poison ivy, or sumac, you will experience very little problem. I have not had any problem from exposure for years.”

How Can You Treat the Itchy Rash?

What can you do once you notice the red bumps and experience the itch? If it’s a mild case of poison ivy, a topical corticosteroid cream from the pharmacy may help. An odd home remedy might also be worth a try.

Some people tell us that a banana peel can be comforting:

“As a Girl Scout 40 years ago, I tried an experiment with banana peel on one spot of poison ivy and calamine lotion on the other spot. The spot where I applied the banana peel three to five times a day healed three days sooner. I am a believer.”

Hot Water Is Worth a Try:

Hot water can sometimes help ease the discomfort, especially the itch. 

One reader shared this experience:

“I had a case of poison ivy covering my hands and arms. The intense itching was driving me crazy, even while taking a course of prednisone my doctor prescribed. I read about the hot water treatment to relieve itching and found that it did help a lot.”

The trick is to use water that is hot enough to be a bit uncomfortable but not enough to burn. A few seconds of exposure can take away the itch for a couple of hours. This treatment can be controversial, however, as we heard from this reader:

Q. You wrote about using hot water to relieve the itching from poison ivy. I too have found that very hot water relieved the itch.

However, my doctor told me it was one of the worst things I could do. We initially catch poison ivy from contact with the plant, but he said it spreads through our blood stream. Since hot water increases blood circulation, it will also speed the spread of poison ivy.

Dermatologists Promote Hot Water for the Itch:

A. Dermatologists disagree with your doctor. They state unequivocally that a poison ivy rash results from skin exposure to urushiol, the sticky irritating oil from poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. Because there is no evidence that poison ivy spreads through the blood stream, using hot water (not so hot that it burns) to ease the itch should not make a mild case worse.

Gloria H wrote about her experience:

“I was unknowingly exposed to poison ivy until the breakout appeared on both arms and legs. Relief came by patting with soapy water, using a blow dryer on hot setting, but not hot enough to burn skin, and then applying a heavy coating of pink calamine (the one I used contained 8% calamine – surprised to find the clear formula has no calamine in it).

“This relieved the itching for hours. When the itching would start again, I would repeat the process – hot setting on blow dryer, calamine. The pink calamine isn’t very appealing but when you are itching, appearance was the least of my worries. Unfortunately, poison ivy does not go away quickly – lasted about 7 days. If I had gotten it on my face, I would have gone to a doctor.”

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RW agreed about the benefit of a blow dryer:

“I have also used the blow dryer treatment when I found it difficult to get water to stay hot enough. Instead of calamine lotion I followed up the heat application with moisturizing lotion with aloe in it. Otherwise the heat would dry out my skin badly.

“I have read that poison ivy symptoms only start to appear when the oil from the plant has bonded onto the skin. Once the itchy rash is present, the oil can no longer be spread to other body parts, fabric, clothing, etc. You can also get poison ivy oil on your skin from touching an animal’s fur after the animal has been through a poison ivy patch.

“I also read that how the heat treatment works is by releasing the histamines that are in the skin cells affected by the rash. Histamines are what causes the itching, so you could also try an anti-histamine for itch relief. After applying the heat the histamines build up again gradually in the skin, but it usually takes a couple of hours for the rash to start itching again. Essentially the heat treatment allows you to compress two hours worth of itching into a few seconds. At the same time the more pain you are feeling from the heat, the less itch you are able to feel. This is because pain and itch use the same nerves to send signals to the brain, and the nerves have a limit to the volume of signals they can transmit simultaneously.”

Milk of Magnesia to Soothe Poison Ivy Rash:

Heat is not the only remedy to stop the suffering. Other readers report that applying milk of magnesia to the rash also soothes the itch. 

One reader shared this story:

“I used to get poison ivy all over after clearing the weeds and grass from my mowers in the Texas winds. I had to go to the doctor for a steroid shot to clear it up.

“One weekend, out of desperation, I first wiped all the rashes down with rubbing alcohol and then rubbed milk of magnesia all over them. It worked much better than calamine lotion. The rash stopped weeping and spreading, and best of all, the itching stopped too! It all cleared up quickly.”

A severe case of poison ivy requires medical attention. A potent corticosteroid cream or even oral prednisone may be necessary. A 15-day course with a tapering dose appears to be an effective treatment (Journal of Clinical Medicine Research, Dec. 2014).

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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  • Kim Y et al, "Poison ivy, oak, and sumac dermatitis: What is known and what is new?" Dermatitis, May/June 2019. DOI: 10.1097/DER.0000000000000472
  • Curtis G & Lewis AC, "Treatment of severe poison ivy: a randomized, controlled trial of long versus short course oral prednisone." Journal of Clinical Medicine Research, Dec. 2014. DOI: 10.14740/jocmr1855w
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When I was young, I frequently was in the woods. Consequently I was continually exposed to poison ivy. My mother kept a bar of Fels Naptha soap that she insisted I use to clean all exposed surfaces after each excursion in the woods. It works.

As a youth I found myself with the start of the PI rash on my hand and arm and used bleach to “scratch” the itch and dry up the blisters so that it didn’t spread. I put some bleach in a little glass bottle and tipped it over on the blisters when they itched. My doctor said it was fine if my skin tolerated the bleach. It took less than a week to dry it up. I will use this again if I get it again.

Once you’ve touched the plant, I’ve found that I’ve got up to 15 minutes to wash it off with cool water and dry off with no reaction! Also, if no water around for a small area, I’ve spit on it and wiped it off with success.

Last summer I got poison ivy on my neck somehow. I applied witch hazel 3 times a day. It significantly helped the itching, and by day 2 was mostly dried up! I highly recommend it.

In my refrigerator is a bottle of beer, and in the freezer a small carton of milk. Either one will wash off the poison ivy plant oils, just as they each soothe the fire of hot Mexican peppers. Have lots of poison ivy here in the mountain woodlands– and with ever larger leaves– as the CO2 increases in the atmosphere. Green plants love that stuff. I’m surprised no one else has mentioned this in your article or comments. (Just thaw the milk in hot water if there is none on the shelf).

Posion Sumac. It is the WORST. Got in it and took over 6 wks to completely get over it. Don’t burn it. The smoke will get in your lungs, and you’ll be in for a hospital stay.

Since I was a kid we used Fels Naptha soap for poison oak. It should work for poison ivy as well.
My grandson got a case recently and lo and behold Fels Naptha was still in the grocery store and worked wonders. You have to make up a lather and let it dry on your skin. Try it!

it’s easy to avoid these rashes. Use a washcloth and soap to wash daily. I never understood why all my childhood friends got rashes from poison Ivy and I didn’t. Until watching a video about using a washcloth. the reason is Poison Ivy oils are in a vapor in the air around these plants. you don’t have to touch them. The oils adhere to the skin. You can’t avoid them. but if you use a washcloth the oils are removed before the rash happens. My childhood friends just washed with soap and water only. My mom kept fresh washcloths for me. Soap and water alone will not remove oils from the skin. That’s why they got the rash and I didn’t.

Urushiol is the chemical that causes the blistering and intense itching. It can remain on the skin and “spread”. I live in an area where there is always an exposure opportunity. I have had excellent results with a product called Zanfel. If you know you’ve been exposed, Zanfel chemically neutralizes the urushiol more effectively than calamine, hot soapy water or steroids. You must follow the directions that come with the product. And, if the poison ivy case is advanced, it calms the itch and reduces the duration of the blisters by at least half. The product is pricey but worth every penny.

I like to sing about it.

Like Jan in NC, I use Jewel Weed (Touch Me Not and other names) but buy it in an extract from local herb company (Teeter). I use soap but frequently don’t know if the dogs, cats or goats gave it to me. The Jewel Weed extract works in minutes to stop an early outbreak and is usually only one treatment.

When I was a child in Oregon, I lived on a property that was rife with poison ivy. It was hard to avoid. I had used ice to stop the pain of burns and decided the same remedy would work on my ivy-induced rash. The ice (cubes in a plastic bag placed on the effected area) totally eliminated the itching and all signs of the rash. I have since used ice successfully for mosquito bites, bee stings, bruises, and tendonitis. Luckily, I can tolerate ice directly on my skin for long periods of time.

Last time I had exposure was in the early 90’s. The itching was awful and lasted for two or three weeks. I discovered that the Hylands poison oak remedy made it almost go away for three or four hours at a time. Then it would return and I’d need another dose. This might not seem ideal, but for several hours at a time the itching would dull to such an extent that I would forget about it. I always keep some around.

Jewel Weed is a natural remedy for poison ivy and usually grows near the Poison Ivy. Crush the leaf, and rub on the area exposed to Poison Ivy to prevent or relieve itching.

I am highly allergic to poison ivy as well as its kissing cousin, Virginia Creeper. 5 leaves when mature. The runners it sends out have 3 leaves & red stems, but once established they get 5 leaves and dark stems. I get all the same reactions to Virginia Creeper as I do to Poison Ivy.
So, just a note to others who are highly sensitive , as some people actually grow Virginia Creeper. I even saw it at a nursery being offered for sale. Ivarest helps & prednisone when it gets overbearing.

Use crushed Jewel Weed juice, most juice comes from the translucent (sp) stems. Jewel weed normally grows near where the poison ivy grows.

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