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Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac: Avoiding it, Treating It


A man named Patrick had to have an angioplasty performed to open a blocked artery to his heart. A friend of Patrick’s called a few days after the procedure to find out how things went. “Well,” Patrick’s wife said, “his poison ivy is really making him miserable.”

That’s how it is with poison ivy. It can’t compare with the seriousness of a heart procedure, but the itch of it makes you feel like you’re going to go nuts. Apparently, it can even make thoughts of an angioplasty fade into the background!

Not everyone is allergic to poison ivy, oak and sumac. But at any time in your life, an allergy can appear. These plants contain an oil called urushiol, which is found in all parts of the plants. It's this oil that gives you the rash—if you’re allergic to it. Urushiol can get on your skin, your clothes and even your pets. You can have a serious case of poison ivy, recover and then get it all over again if you touch the oil that remained behind on something you forgot to wash.

Here are three ways to do your best to avoid coming down with a poison ivy, oak or sumac rash this summer:

  • Avoid
    Learn to recognize the leaves of the plants so that you can avoid contact with them. Poison sumac is a tall shrub with 7 to 13 smooth-edged leaves. It's found in swampy areas. Poison oak and ivy both have bigger, shiny leaves that cluster in threes—hence the adage, “leaves of three, let them be.”
  • Prevent
    If you think you will be in an area that has these plants, apply Ivy Block before you go out. This can prevent the rash from developing, or make the rash less severe if it does develop. If you think you have been exposed, remove and wash all clothing and shoes that have touched the plant, wash your skin with soap and water, use cotton balls to apply rubbing alcohol to your skin and rinse with water, or try washing with Tecnu soap. It’s important to do all of this within two to six hours after exposure.
  • Treat
    Sometimes, you’re exposed to the plant and you don’t realize it until the rash appears. The rash generally shows up within one or two days after exposure and usually lasts about two weeks. Over-the-counter remedies, like calamine lotion, can offer temporary relief in most cases, but there is no cure for this supremely itchy condition. It's important to keep the rash clean, especially if it begins to ooze, to prevent infection. You may also want to try these alternative remedies:
    • Run hot water over the rash—very hot, but not hot enough to burn you. The itch will intensify briefly, then lessen for several hours.
    • Make a paste of baking soda and witch hazel to dry out the area; cover with gauze.

If the rash is severe, develops on your face or genitals, or if you have a fever, see your doctor for additional treatment. If there’s swelling in the tongue, lips or throat; if you have a hard time swallowing or breathing; if you feel weak or dizzy; if your mouth becomes blue; or if the rash causes loss of consciousness, call 9-1-1 for emergency treatment.

The only good thing about poison ivy is that, eventually, it will go away.

American Institute for Preventive Medicine; The Alternative Advisor: The Complete Guide to Natural Therapies and Alternative Treatments.
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