Itchy and Scratchy Myths

My mini drug store of poison ivy treatment options.

My mini drug store of poison ivy treatment options.

If you are like me, one of your biggest dreads every summer is accidentally coming in contact with poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac. I have a severe allergy to these treacherous plants. Whenever I come in contact with them, I break out in an extremely irritating rash that spreads quickly and lasts a minimum of a week, but usually longer.

My skin turns red and bumpy. I itch. I scratch. I take antihistamines. I apply creams. Lather, rinse, repeat. It sucks.

For the past  two weeks, I have had a pretty serious reaction to a scratch by a poison ivy plant that I received when I went ziplining. Who would’ve thought that the worst that would have happened to me was not plunging to my death, but an allergic reaction?!?!

All three poison plants – ivy, oak and sumac – contain the same rash-triggering plant oil called urushiol (pronounced yoo-ROO-shee-all). 

Urushiol quickly penetrates the skin, often leaving red lines that show where you brushed against the plant. Which is why I spent most of last week looking like I had been attacked by Wolverine. Long, red and lumpy slashes ran down one arm, across my forehead, chin and chest, and over one shin. Very pretty.

Not only do I look like I was attacked by Wolverine, but that I'm turning into him. When did my arm get so hairy?

Not only do I look like I was attacked by Wolverine, but that I’m turning into him. When did my arm get so hairy?

Symptoms usually appear 24 to 72 hours after exposure, which is how I knew I got mine in the woods after ziplining. After posting about the outbreak on Facebook. I got some very interesting suggestions for dealing with my itchy scratchy hell.

I did some research on my own (WebMD didn’t exist the last time I had a reaction this bad!) I also talked to my doctor. I uncovered three common myths, and since 85 percent of the population is also allergic to the plants, I thought I would share to help those of you dealing with future reactions.

1. You can only get the rash from direct contact with the plant oil itself. That said, if you are burning a pile of weeds, take heed you can get airborne oil particles IN your eyes, mouth and nose, but not just walking near it. Also, animals can carry the oil on their fur and the oil can stay active on your clothing. So wash anything you were wearing when exposed.

2. Scratching the itchy rash does NOT cause it to spread but can prolong skin healing and cause a secondary infection.

3. The rash isn’t contagious, so you won’t spread it to others by going to school or work. 

As for treatment methods, I got many suggestions from the typical to the seemingly crazy. Here is a list of what worked for me and what didn’t.

  • Wash all exposed areas thoroughly. If you can do this within 10 minutes of contact, many times you may avoid an allergic reaction. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch it in time.
  • Calamine lotion is the standard for a reason. It works! It now comes in a clear formula so you don’t have to go around with a hideously ugly rash covered in a funky pink, dry, flaky lotion. Yay!
  • Cold compresses — 15 to 30 minutes several times a day — are useful for itching and blistering; cool showers are also effective. Several folks also suggested taking a shower in water as hot as I could stand, especially right before bed. For them, the heat overwhelmed their nerves and kept itching at bay for several hours. For me, heat always made me itch more.
  • Antihistamines can relieve the symptoms. I have to take them at night though because they knock me out!
  • Cold pain therapy lotions and balms provide some relief, but have to be reapplied constantly. These were fairly effective for me during the day. They were also invisible on the skin.
  • Rub the inside of banana peels to stop itching and dry up the rash. My mom swears by this treatment, which her grandmother used on her. All it did for me, was turn me into a delectable treat for the dog who enjoyed licking me for hours after I applied!
  • Listerine might dry out the rash. Again, the dog enjoyed this treatment long before I ever saw any relief.
  • If you have complications from a severe case, you will need to see a doctor. If the rash is severe or wide spread, your doctor may recommend oralprednisone or another corticosteroid.

For any of you that have ever suffered through the rash, I really feel for you. Hopefully, you will find a suggestion here that helps.



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