Pondering Poison Ivy Remedies and Itch Relief

by Todd Walker

Pondering Poison Ivy Natural Remedies and Itch Relief

pon·der – to think about or consider (something) carefully

Spend any amount of time in the outdoors or in your yard, it’s very likely you’ll come in contact with this evil plant. It has successfully reduced men, women, and children to miserable, scratching beasts.

Time in nature has a calming, rejuvenating effect on people… until they feel Nature’s revenge.

Over the years I’ve sought out home remedies to stop the painful, blistering rash caused by poison ivy. In my experience, some work, some don’t. In extreme cases, I’ve gotten steroid shots. Like the time I transferred the oil to my nether region while relieving myself in the woods – the week before getting married! An injection of steroids was my top priority. LOL!

It’s ironic that this poisonous vine is in the family of my favorite nut, the cashew. I eat a hand full daily with no reaction. What makes the ivy, oak, or sumac poisonous to humans is the dreaded oil… urushiol (you-ROO-shee-ol). All parts of the plant contain the oil which can stay active for up to five years. Once the oil makes contact with your skin – via touching the plant directly or indirect contact from clothing, shoes, or your pet – the clock starts ticking for a red, itchy, bubbly rash to occur within 12 to 72 hours.

Some people swear they are immune to this stuff. I’ve personally witness a buddy of mine hug a pine tree covered in poison ivy with no ill effects. The theory of some people being immune is suspect in my mind. WARNING: If you are one of those fortunate individuals who have rolled in this stuff and never experienced a reaction, you may be a candidate for hospitalization in the future. Stories exist of people who thought they were immune but found out the hard way they were not. The more times you come in contact with the oil, the more likely your are to come down with a rash.

Attempting to build immunity to poison ivy is not a new idea. Tales of Native Americans eating leaves in early spring to build resistance , true or not, is not something I’ve tried or recommend.

Stuff to Avoid

The best remedy for poison ivy is AVOIDANCE. That’s not always easy. The oil is potent and stable. Taking off shoes after hiking or petting your dog who stares at you wagging and waiting for affection can transfer urushiol. Doing exposed laundry or handling outdoor tools – same effect. Imagine unknowingly spreading the oil in a sleeping bag – and re-infecting yourself two more times by sleeping in the bag a year later!! You can read more stories of creatively contracting the rash here. Horrific photos of poison ivy victims can be viewed in the Skin Rash Hall of Fame. This stuff is nothing to play with!

Avoid anything that would make the oil go airborne like burning wood contaminated with poison ivy. Lawn mowers and weed trimmers have a way of spreading the wealth.

Leaves of Three

Leaves of three, let it be! Poison ivy and oak have three-leaf clusters. Poison ivy and oak are very similar and not worth making a distinction between the two. They’re both bad news!

Pondering Poison Ivy Natural Remedies and Itch Relief

Leaves of three!

Pondering Poison Ivy Natural Remedies and Itch Relief

Avoid ‘hairy’ vines climbing on trees

Pondering Poison Ivy Natural Remedies and Itch Relief

Poison ivy about to bloom

Poison sumac, on the other hand, is a shrub that has 7 to 13 leaves on a branch and is found mostly in wet, swampy areas.

I Need a Remedy!

If you know you’ve come in contact with urushiol, wash the area of skin with cold water and non-oil based soap. Hot water opens skin pores to allow more poison oil in. An industrial soap like Fels Naptha is good to keep on hand or in your bushcraft/camping kit. No soap? Water is better than nothing. Once the oil bonds to the skin, no amount of washing will help.

While I haven’t tried all the folk remedies listed below, they may work for you. If so, please let other readers know. Also, you may have a cure that we haven’t listed. By all means, please share!

Herbal Remedies

  • Jewelweed – Apply the juice to affected area. The natural soaps in this weed are thought to be responsible for healing blisters in 2 to 3 days. How to identify and use jewelweed for skin rashes can be found here.
  • Tea Tree Oil – Apply every two hours to stop itching and dry the blisters and rash.
  • Honey suckle leaves – Blend leaves 3:1 with water. Strain and apply to affected area liberally.
  • Plantain – The drawing properties of this weed helps with bites and poisonous plants. Apply a poultice twice daily.
  • Aloe vera plant is known for burn relief but can be used for poison ivy as well

Kitchen/Bath Remedies

  • Fels Naptha soap is excellent stuff for removing urushiol
  • Baking soda paste and bath
  • Oatmeal paste and bath
  • White vinegar
  • Salt rubbed into the rash and used in baths
  • Banana peel (inside) rubbed on rash – from Foxfire books
  • Tomato juice bath with salt
  • Immediately after contact, wash with cold water and dishwashing soap which cuts grease… and urushiol
  • Some like it HOT! Hot water treatment – run hot water (hot as you can stand without scalding) on affected area for itch relief
  • Hair blow dryer – same idea as hot water treatment above.
  • Vicks VapoRub – temporary relief from itching
  • Rubbing alcohol misted on areas
  • Bleach – I don’t recommend this but people use it on their skin
  • Ban roll on anti-perspirant – the plain, non-scented stuff

Medicine Cabinet Conventional Remedies

  • Witch Hazel
  • Over the counter poison ivy meds
  • Goldbond medicated cream
  • Epsom salt bath soak
  • Milk of Magnesia – add layers to affected area for itch and drying
  • Preparation H

Clean Your Stuff

Now that you know you have the rash, it’s vital that you clean clothing, bedding, tools, shoes, and pets that can further spread the toxic oil. You don’t want to share the love with others or re-infect after you’re cured. Urushiol the size of a pin head can infect 500 people. It’s potent stuff!

First, the oil is what causes the rash. It’s not spread by draining blisters to other body parts or people. It is systemic in highly allergic people and can spread to other body parts. The culprit is usually oil on or under finger nails that causes the rash to spread. Avoid touching sensitive areas if you knowingly touched the plant oil.

Wash clothes and bedding several times. The first few days after exposure, shower in cold water several times a day with a non-oil based soap. Oily soap helps spread the urushiol. You want to completely rid the oil from your body. This may sound like overkill but better safe than itchy.

Wipe down tools and gear with alcohol or using rubber gloves. Anything you may have touched before may hold the oil – steering wheel, light switch, door knobs, tool handle, etc. I carry a flask of Everclear in my bushcraft kit for medicinal reason and disinfection.

Trade Theory for Action

Not every remedy works for everybody. We’re individuals and our body chemistries are different. What works for me may not for you. Besides avoidance, what conventional or folk remedy have you found effective to rid the rash?

Keep Doing the Stuff,


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Categories: Bushcraft, Camping, Doing the Stuff, Medical | Tags: , , | 29 Comments

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29 thoughts on “Pondering Poison Ivy Remedies and Itch Relief

  1. Tim

    For me, it take a lot less than 12 hours for the rash to occur. If I touch poison ivy, it only takes about 30 minutes for a rash to appear. I have had many bouts of poison ivy in my life, and all have been terrible, taking two to five weeks for recovery.
    Last year I was carrying some firewood in a short sleeve tee-shirt. A half hour later I noticed the poison rash on my arm. My wife had been experimenting with charcoal, so I tried some on the rash. The result was amazing, to say the least: the rash was completely gone in a few hours. Since then, I’ve had two more bouts with poison ivy and used charcoal with the same results.
    I’ve found that nothing works as good as charcoal. I just mix some charcoal powder with a little olive oil to make a paste, coat the poison rash with it, and then wrap it with a bandage for a few hours. The itch stops immediately, and when the wrap is removed after a few hours, the rash is usually gone. Of course the time depends on many factors, including the person’s sensitivity.


  2. Reblogged this on sondasmcschatter and commented:


  3. Chewylouie

    I am allergic to poison ivy, so over the years I have learned to identify it (from a mile away) and avoid it. Still though, I have gotten is so often it isn’t really a big deal. Maybe it is because I am getting used to it, or maybe I am not as allergic to it any more. Either way, having it almost every month of the year has taught me to control myself and not scratch. If you scratch it, it will turn into the kind of rash that keeps you up at night, for weeks! If poison ivy were edible though, in my area, I would never starve. Seriously though, it is every where. I will probably have plenty of time to try out some of these remedies this summer, unfortunately.


  4. Thanks for the info. Fortunately I have never had a reaction. I don’t know if that is because I haven’t come in contact with poison ivy (I’m kinda clueless when it comes to identifying plants) or if I just don’t react.


    • You may have never touched the plant, Stephanie. The vast majority of people on the planet have a reaction to the oil. Some experts say everyone is allergic, but for some reason, have not had a reaction. With every contact with the plant, they lose resistance.

      Hope you never find out! Thanks for the comment!


  5. Outsidethelines

    Excellent, comprehensive article! I used to be one of those who didn’t get a reaction, then at age 35, got my first reaction and it was a doozy! The blisters were so huge and horrible, I thought I’d be permanently disfigured.

    Since then, despite my best efforts to avoid it, it’s nearly impossible because I work outdoors and poison ivy is everywhere. I’ve had many reactions and have tried many of the remedies you have listed.

    Here’s what works really well for me: if I think there’s the slightest chance I might have been exposed, I wash my entire body, even hair, with blue Dawn dish liquid and tepid water, and pat my body dry. I scrub the heck out of my nails with a nail brush drenched in Dawn and absolutely DO NOT shave my legs (made that mistake one time and…OMG!)

    If the blisters DO appear, I wash again with the blue Dawn, liberally dab/wipe the affected area with white vinegar on a cotton ball, let it dry, liberally apply Calydryl (must be the pink kind-clear does nothing for me), and bandage after it dries. I do this at least twice a day until the blisters are dried up/scabbing and the itch is gone.

    If the blisters get fluid filled, I pop them with a sterilized needle to drain them and repeat the wash/vinegar/Caladryl/bandage routine. It’s supposed to be FACT that the rash can’t spread from a weeping blister but from my experience, oh heck yes it can and will and does and has, and that has made for excessive misery and lots of lost sleep.

    If I catch it early, and keep up this routine—hassle that it is—-, I can be rid of it in just a few days.

    The hot water spray or hot blow dryer REALLY works well to alleviate the itch for several hours.


    • Interesting protocol you use. I’ve thought the same thing as you about blisters spreading the rash. For me, I think my sensitivity is so high that a rash on my leg spreads systemically to other areas of my body. I don’t scratch and it will still spread.

      I’m sure shaving would be a big no, no!! Thanks for sharing your treatment with us.


    • laura m.

      Outside: I do the exact same thing. Dawn dish det. cuts the oil; I then use 70% rubbing alcohol and later use tea tree oil or caladryl lotion. Sometimes you can brush against a poison plant and don’t know it until it starts itching. These items need to go with you when camping, hiking, etc.


  6. I didn’t get it – and spent many hours in the woods of FL around it as a kid – until I was 30. Now it usually takes cortisone for me to get rid of it. It lasts for freaking ever! I’m really careful, but you can’t always avoid it – so I’ll bookmark this for future outbreaks. Also for my son, who hunts a lot, and has always had reactions.


  7. Bill

    It is best to use lots of cold water without soap to remove as much oil as possible first. The reason is the soap reduces the surface tension of the water and also thins the oil allowing it to penetrate pores more easily. So get most oil off first, THEN wash with soap without scubbing, then a third time aggressively to try and clean what remains on the skin. Once I started doing this after cleaning fence rows etc which create ample exposure I almost never get the rash now.


    • Okiehunter61

      I used to be very allergic to Poison Ivy – had a bad case of it on my wedding day. An old guy told me how to build up my resistance to it. Simply expose yourself to it on occasion – I did it on my forearm, and then wash it well with good old fashioned Lye Soap. At first I washed the urishol off within ten minutes, but after a summer I was able to wait several hours. I now clear areas of healthy green poison Ivy on my acreage and get it all over my arms. I make sure to wash good with lye soap within four hours and I am good to go. I make sure to put my clothes in the washer myself, and I make sure to wash my boots off too, as they will recontaminate you after you tie your laces the next day. I treat my boots with permethrin often, so I make sure to wash my hands after tying my laces anyway.


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  16. Very informative, brother. I would, however, recommend more than just soap and water – especially when using cold water. Cold water (even soapy) doesn’t cut oil and grease as well as hot. I recommend using a cloth of some kind in this process. The combination of water, soap and a cloth will almost assuredly take off the foul devil’s oil every time… and don’t forget to get in between the fingers!!


    • Thanks, Patrick. The reasoning behind the cold water, in my mind, is that warm/hot opens pores on the skin. I’ve had good success in the woods using just cold wash and warm shower when I get home. Remind me to tell you a poison ivy story I had three days before my wedding…


  17. You mention bleach in the post, and honestly, this is the ONLY thing that remedies the reaction in less than 24 hours. I scratch it, then dab some (straight) bleach on it and the stuff is gone the next day. Everything else takes away the itching, but the hives are still there until it works its way out of the system. Yes, it stings when applying, but hey, it stops the itch.
    I’ve been using this method for almost 30 years and it has NEVER failed me.


  18. michael croy

    good old potato juice. slice a potato and rub on infected


  19. On the use of bleach. Quite by accident my Queen and I found that a good soak in a hot tub brought relief. I figured the combination of the chlorinated water and heat were responsible.


  20. Very good article. Always observe your surroundings in the outdoors. Had only heard a little about jewelweed before, thanks for the info. I agree that avoidance is the best remedy.


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