Summertime Remedies for Poison Oak

Summer is headed our way with its deeper forays into nature. Here in Ashland, Oregon, we live in just the right climate to encounter an abundance of poison oak. I recommend looking up an image of it so that you can recognize it in its variety of forms and stages. Since the urushiol oils are found on the branches as well as the leaves, every season is fair game to encounter the plant. 

You will find Toxicodendron diversilobum (Western Poison Oak) low to the ground. With its innocent-looking green leaves (the infamous three-leaf) or as a six-foot tall leggy bush with shiny green and/or red leaves, the oils cause a rascally itchy rash that shows up one to several days after contact and typically lasts from one to two weeks.

As with all things, prevention is the best strategy. If you come into contact with this plant, appreciate its beauty and walk around it. If you do brush up against it, wash with dish soap and cool water (don’t wash with hot water as it drives the oils into your skin). Or if there is no water around, you can do your best to get the oils off of your skin by rubbing with sand or dirt (this does work!). If you brush up against it with your clothes, wash them in hot water and soap when you get home. Wearing gloves, wash contaminated shoes with dish soap and water.  

Never burn poison oak. If you do breathe poison oak smoke and have a reaction, go to the ER immediately. If your pet tromps through poison oak, wash it down with dish soap. Some people swear by the specialized Tecnu soap which is great, but studies have shown that dish soap works just as well as the objective is to get rid of oils.

Apparently, 15% of the population are unaffected by the oils (lucky ducks!) But what can you do if you are not one of the lucky ones and do end up with a poison oak rash? Once you have it, as long as you aren’t being re-exposed via contaminated clothing or pets, you are not contagious and it does not continue to spread. Future appearances are delayed reactions to the original exposure. The oil is completely absorbed into your skin by the time the rash appears.

If you do end up with a rash, try Quercitin with bromelain. Take 500mg, up to 4x/day (short term, just during the itchy phase). For some people, this will stop the itch and it won’t come back. This is a natural antihistamine and will stop the histamine reaction that causes the voluptuous itching (I do love that phrase!).  A 50/50 solution of water and apple cider vinegar can help dry out the rash to help it heal faster. A solution of apple cider vinegar and betonite clay made into a paste and applied to the rash can also help dry it out.  If none of these things work, run the affected part under water that is hot enough to get that itch really going but not hot enough to burn you. Bear with it for a while so that it will “burn out” the histamines. This will offer a few hours of relief.  Last, but certainly not least, call a naturopathic doctor who will recommend a homeopathic remedy to help relieve the itching.

- Dr. Ajana Miki