Poison Ivy - - Scourge of the Summer
by Janice Hand

In the June 22 Wall Street Journal, an article titled “Least-Welcome Sign of Summer” featured information about poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). According to the WSJ, this is an especially bad year for poison ivy: “…poison-ivy complaints this year are more plentiful than in recent memory.” The reasons aren’t known, but some experts suspect that it’s mainly due to more people out gardening and spending time in their yards. Some scientists believe that poison ivy is getting larger and getting more virulent because of increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. According to a 2007 study published in Journal of Weed Science, when exposed to carbon dioxide-rich study environments, poison ivy grew “bigger, hardier, and more irritating….”


Poison ivy contains urushiol, an oil that irritates the skin by interacting with skin proteins and producing a red, very itchy allergic reaction. The good news is that around 15% of people are insensitive to the poison ivy’s oil, so do not get reactions. The bad news is that for the other 85%, repeated exposure makes the rash worse and worse. (But, there is some good news on the bad news—poison ivy sensitivity trends to decline as a person ages.)  In other bad news, some seemingly immune people all of a sudden get a case of poison ivy rash after years of not being affected.



To prevent poison ivy rashes, simply wear long sleeves, gloves, and socks (and carefully launder them as the oil can persist for a long time) or use a block like IvyBlock lotion  (by Hyland’s Inc.).




If you are exposed, you have 15-30 minutes to get the oils off your skin before the rash begins. Products designed to help include Zanfel (a soapy wash, made by by Zanfel Laboratories), or simply use rubbing alcohol, which strips the oils from the skin.


The rash begins 12 to 72 hours after exposure. People use a wide array of treatments:



  • Over the counter topical cortisone ointment like Cortizone-10 and an antihistamine like Benadryl.


  • Acorns—Boil acorns in water, strain, and use the “tea” on the affected area. The tannins in the acorns act as an astringent.
  • Baking soda—Use as a compress to sooth inflamed skin. Sodium bicarbonate is thought to dry blisters by pulling fluids from them.
  • Bleach—A diluted bleach-water mixture can help dry blisters and keep crusting and infection down. For a bathtub full of water, use ½ cup of bleach (or 1 teaspoon in a pint of water for a compress). The article warns of “possible negative reaction in places unaffected by poison ivy.”
  • Buttermilk or yoghurt—Similar to the bleach method, these help draw out blister fluids.
  • Jewelweed—Some people believe that sap from the jewelweed plant removes the oil from skin and eases itching.  (Others believe in dishwashing detergent and clay soaps.)
  • Tea bags—Fill a bathtub with 12 teabags to help dry blisters. Some believe chamomile has anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Oatmeal—This treatment is well-known to be soothing whether used in a bath or in compresses. Oatmeal is thought to assist in drawing out fluids in blisters, dry sores, and to sooth inflammation.



Keep in mind that the poison ivy can be hard to identify. It grows as vines, bushes, ground cover. To make it worse, leaves can be either toothed or smooth. However, one constant is the old adage, “Leaves of three, let it be.” 


In addition to poison ivy, watch out also for poison sumac (mostly found in swampy areas and has red stems).


Be safe out there!