How do I best deal with poison oak and/or poison ivy?
January 19, 2005 12:50 PM   Subscribe

Itchy & Scratchy. [+]

I did some yard work this weekend, most of which involved shoveling mud and clearing out some undergrowth. I wore gloves, but apparently I touched or chopped something I shouldn't have and I now have a very nasty case of what I'm certain is either Poison Oak or Poison Ivy.

I have more work to do out there, and from what I've read, you don't have to touch the plants to get infected--the Poison Oak/Ivy oil can become airborne if you hack it with a machete or step on a branch.

I have four questions:

1) Is there a remedy for the Poison Oak/Ivy rash?

2) If I burn or tear out the plants, the oil becomes airborne, so how do I kill/get rid of the plants?

3) Short of wearing a Level A biohazard suit, what precautions must I take to avoid contamination?

4) If I think I've been contaminated, how do I get the oil off my skin and what should I do to minimize spreading it to other parts of my body?
posted by fandango_matt to Health & Fitness (38 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
1. Zanfel is your remedy. Expensive, but will kill the screaming itch.

2. DO NOT burn poison oak or ivy. If you inhale the smoke, you're likely in for a trip to the emergency room. Kill it with Ortho Brush-B-Gone. Follow label directions. Or cut with loppers, but you'll be doing that for the rest of your days.

3. Nylon running suit with cotton liner. Tall boots. At least two layers of heavy gloves. Eye protection, because the vines will slap you in the face. Be very careful undressing.

4. Wash with rubbing alcohol or running water with strong dish soap (Dawn) within ten minutes of exposure. In general, after you wash, you won't transfer it to other parts. It just binds to your skin, so you still have it, but you can't really spread it after you've washed reasonably thoroughly. Wash all clothes and gloves.
posted by sageleaf at 1:02 PM on January 19, 2005

1) Ask your doctor about an RX strength cortisone cream that you can apply to the rash. I have had Poison Ivy before and for me it takes a prescription to cure it.
posted by mlis at 1:03 PM on January 19, 2005

WebMD's recommendations. Advice for removing the plants is under "Prevention," though it basically says to dispose of them in accordance with local regulations, so you may be better off calling your city/county for that info.
posted by occhiblu at 1:03 PM on January 19, 2005

That should have read "RX strength cortisone steroid cream".
posted by mlis at 1:04 PM on January 19, 2005

Just in case it might help with some searches, the irritating oil is called "Urushiol".
posted by milovoo at 1:06 PM on January 19, 2005

What a misleading post.
posted by agregoli at 1:06 PM on January 19, 2005

I agree with agregoli, it would sure help any future searches to have a more descriptive question, or at least have the word "poison ivy" in it.
posted by milovoo at 1:08 PM on January 19, 2005

Take a long, soapy, soaking bath. Anywhere you scratch spreads it to other places, so jump in the bath quick and do your laundry immediately after you're finished with yardwork. Calamine lotion (like the song says), is another good thing to prevent the itches.. If you've got a housemate you can sucker into doing yardwork, it might be worth your while: reactions to poison ivy differ vastly, and I've never had one nearly as bad as yours, despite growing up on a farm full of it (but also full of goats, who eat anything!).
posted by soviet sleepover at 1:09 PM on January 19, 2005

There's a product called "Tecnu" which claims to be effective at breaking down the urushiol. Any large, chain-type pharmacy should carry it, and you can use it on your skin AND on your clothes (i.e. in a washing machine).
posted by coelecanth at 1:09 PM on January 19, 2005

Bleach works well. It is good for removing the oil from your skin after you have been exposed, and it is also good for drying out the rash.

It is an extreme measure, though. I used to run into poison ivy on a weekly basis, and I used it frequently, but I wouldn't suggest using it before conducting some tests.
posted by bh at 1:33 PM on January 19, 2005

Hurry! The sooner you treat this the better. I had a bad exposure to poison ivy (I think they told me it had worked its way into my bloodstream, not sure how that works), that eventually required a course of steroids to subdue. I almost clawed my eyes out.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 1:33 PM on January 19, 2005

I second the Dawn or other strong soap, but remember that you can get the oil on your clothes and shoes (especially the soles, from squishing the stems and getting the juice on them), so through everything in the wash right away, and don't track it on the floor or carpet. The plants react to damage and make more poison, so I've mowed pristine fields with mower, (usually a terrible idea, same as burning, makes a mist of chopped up juicy bits) without any problem. But after the first time, watch out!
posted by 445supermag at 1:37 PM on January 19, 2005

Later today I'm going to pick up the remedies you recommended. I took some Benadryl but it's just making me jittery and shaky.

I'm astonished at how powerful and pervasive the urushiol is--I wore a long-sleeve tshirt, jeans, gloves and sneakers and yet 65% to 75% of my body is covered with the rash. This is unquestionably the most severe case I've ever had.

Thanks, everyone, for all your advice and help. You folks rock.
posted by fandango_matt at 1:46 PM on January 19, 2005

I'm very "allergic" to poison ivy, and thought I'd share some things that I've found work for treating it. Top of the list is Domeboro solution - which you mix with water and use as a compress. Very helpful for drying any weepy areas, which are thought to cause spreading. I've used this on smaller outbreaks with great sucess.

Also, Aveno makes an oatmeal bath, which is sort of messy, but really good for treating larger areas. The oatmeal calms the itch and dries the rashes at least temporarily.

If you really are suffering, I highly recommend a trip to the Dr's. Sometimes the easiest way to treat it is through oral steroids, which I've taken before and work really really well.

On top of that, you have my sympathy, and don't scratch you'll make it worse.
posted by sarahmelah at 1:46 PM on January 19, 2005

You don't need anything special to wash clothes or tools. Tide works perfectly well for your clothes, dish soap for your tools. Wash whether you think you've been exposed or not.

I know plenty about this: Last year, we had poison oak with leaves the size of your hand. Not the three leaves together, each individual leaf. They're all dead now, and I have a truck-bed-size pile of dead vines waiting to be boxed (forget bags, the vines will just poke through the plastic no matter how heavy) and taken to the dump. I haven't needed medical intervention, and only use of Zanfel -- nothing else works like it -- has helped my few lapses into stupidity and/or denial. Of course, if you do need medical help, get it.

On preview, don't do bleach. If you need to dry a weeping rash, use alcohol or a special drying cream. If you're really weeping and soaking your clothes, maxipads will wick it away.
posted by sageleaf at 1:47 PM on January 19, 2005

Although homeopathy works better on poison oak/ivy as a preventative method, it could still help your symptoms. More importantly, it can help prevent a second outbreak due to over-production of antibodies (which is what causes the rash). You'd want to take a remedy called Rhus Tox, at potency 6c.

Incidentally, although scratching may make you feel worse, it won't spread the rash. The liquid that oozes from the rash does not contain urushiol.
posted by Specklet at 2:05 PM on January 19, 2005

After seeing fandango_matt's followup, I retract my previous advice, and agree with sageleaf. Bleach is great for small, serious reactions. But when you are talking about a rash that covers a good portion of your body, forget it.

You are likely going to need oral steroids to clear this up. Do yourself a favor and get them as soon as possible. Meaning today, even if you have to go to one of those crappy doc-in-the-boxes (emergency facilities, urgent care centers, whatever).

On a tangent - if the rash is on your hands, and you still need to use them for something (type, etc): wash with rubbing alcohol, fill latex gloves (like the doctors have, available at drug stores) with Gold Bond powder, put on gloves, tape shut, put driving gloves on top. It mostly stops the itching, and allows you to use your hands more or less normally.
posted by bh at 2:10 PM on January 19, 2005

Wash it off with soap and water, then abate the pain with some calamine lotion. Don't mess with it too much or it will scar. Try not to break the blisters, but if they do break, don't worry about the puss. Cover it up if it looks ugly (if you want), but let it air out at night. Bath it some too, that is nice. You can stick all sorts of odd things on it, but that's never worked for me. Just let it dry up and go away. Takes 5-14 days.

As for staying away from it, you don't need an A, more like D with added PPE of work gloves. Wash yourself off afterwards, avoid rubbing your eyes or touching your gentiles. Poison ivy really swells up those softer tissues. More importantly realize it's outside and deal with that. You'll get it here and there, you only get it bad when you're actively manipulating it around.

The above isn't exactly medical advice, just country boy experience.
posted by sled at 3:01 PM on January 19, 2005

To point #4- lots of water on the exposed area within 5-10 minutes of contact, then use TecNu in the shower later on. I go through several bottles of TecNu each year-- the stuff really works and can be used up to eight hours after contact.

I'm quite alergic to poison ivy and work around it all the time (I build and maintain backpacking trails). I often hack down yards of ivy with a line trimmer, which sends leaf flecks everywhere. When I'm done trimming, I hose down myself and my clothes (or jump in the river!). I also wash any tools, then head for the TecNu. I've been 99% free of rashes for several years.

Oh, and never burn the stuff.
posted by F Mackenzie at 3:14 PM on January 19, 2005

Wash yourself off afterwards, avoid rubbing your eyes or touching your gentiles.

This might be easier if you're Jewish.

posted by Specklet at 3:22 PM on January 19, 2005

If your reaction is this severe, you might try calling some landscaping companies about the cleanup. I know my gardeners have a poison oak "Special Forces" made up of well-covered guys who arent "allergic" to poison oak, called in especially for problem poisonous areas. You'll want to find out whether it was oak or ivy, as sensitivity to one does not equal a reaction from the other.
posted by obloquy at 3:34 PM on January 19, 2005

Poison ivy is pretty common in our area, and we use Tecnu constantly, whenever we think we may have come into contact with it. You can actually put it in the laundry, with the "contaminated" clothes, to help make sure it gets washed away. (By the way, from what I understand, the main benefit is apparently a kind of detergent effect, that helps break down the oil and carry it away, so any soap probably helps.)

Most decent-sized pharmacies will also carry a newer line of very pricey poison ivy remedies--like $20-30 or more for a single little bottle. (Tecnu is more like $10.) We haven't recently had a case bad enough to try it, but this doesn't sound like a case where you want to be probably want to throw everything you can at it. (Just make sure your doctor knows what you're using.)

Finally, a couple of years ago, when we did have a worse outbreak between my wife and myself after some heavy yardwork, the doctor prescribed "prednisone"--which I think is some kind of steroid/corticosteroid--that seemed to really help.
posted by LairBob at 4:08 PM on January 19, 2005

Another satisfied Tecnu family! We use it pro-actively, at the first hint there might have been contact. So it is good to have some around the house.

One hint: Don't use hot water to soak in or shower in. Heat causes the histamines to go into overdrive and you will make yourself even more itchy. Sadly, when you scratch yourself in the hot shower it will feel orgasmic, but you will pay for it later!
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 4:34 PM on January 19, 2005

Wow, secret life, I read this whole thread with the thought of suggesting the hot shower thing. It always worked for me -- got me relief from the itching for up to an hour afterwards, so YMMV -- but you're right about how it feels. If you're of a mind, crank that water up as hot as you can stand, push it just a little further, and direct on affected areas. It's exquisite.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 5:30 PM on January 19, 2005

Take a long, soapy, soaking bath.
Second worst advice ever1. Any oils you might have on you will get washed off and will float on the stop of the bath water. The act of getting out of the tub will spread the oil to other parts of your body, probably places where it will be especially bad. The other advice--soap and water, clean the tools, take reasonable steps to relieve the itching, see a doctor--all good.
1The worst advice is to burn the plants and breathe deeply
posted by plinth at 5:57 PM on January 19, 2005

I remember reading that poison ivy reactions, like bee sting reactions, are one of those things that can become worse over time with repeated exposure, and sometimes much worse very quickly.

(This was in the context of someone who was so incredibly unaffected by poison ivy that they could actually eat the stuff. (Urban legend? Dunno.) The caution being that they could unexpectedly become sensitized, and the next time they ate it it'd kill them.)
posted by hattifattener at 7:11 PM on January 19, 2005

Euell Gibbons ate poison ivy in small doses and claimed it desensitized him to urushiol. "One every day in the month of May."

(Several doctors have warned that this is not a good idea)
posted by F Mackenzie at 7:43 PM on January 19, 2005

sageleaf speaks the truth. I've had good experiences with Zanfel. Everything else I've tried just treats the symptoms. I haven't tried TecNu.
posted by euphorb at 7:58 PM on January 19, 2005

This is pretty gross but it's worked for me. If your rash is bad enough that you've developed blisters, pop all those little bastards with a sterile needle, run under hot water, swab liberally with rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide, and apply calamine lotion or preferably Ivarest (don't know how Ivarest compares with Zanafel, so you might want to try the latter first). I usually keep it under the hot water at as high a temperature and for as long as I could stand, and it seemed to not make things worse, but perhaps all this remedy did was take my mind off the itching due to all that self-inflicted pain.

My dad and I are really sensitive to poison ivy (we've gotten it in December in Michigan), but it's pretty good prevention enough to wear a long-sleeved button-up shirt, long pants, and gloves while working with it and then wash with Lava soap as soon as possible afterwards. But from your description it sounds like you were working long enough that it soaked through, so I guess you might want to use more layers or Tecnu like other people have suggested.

Oh, as soon as you get inside strip off the clothes and throw them in the laundry so you don't contaminate anything else. And if you have pets don't let them wander in ivy-infested areas, since the oils will get on their fur and then onto you after you pet them.

Eating poison ivy sounds like a stupid, stupid idea for those who like breathing. Does that Gibbons guy have proof?
posted by schroedinger at 8:53 PM on January 19, 2005

I've dealt with Poison Ivy for years and here are some suggestions based on what I've experienced:

Soap is the best remedy immediately after exposure (before any rash develops). TecNu is too expensive for me to bother with but I know other landscapers that swear by it.

For a rash that isn't severe and widespread, over-the-counter hydrocortisone is very effective. You should go to a doctor if the rash is very bad, covers a large area, or you start feeling sick in other ways. A doctor can prescribe more potent steroids.

Exposure to other plants can cause rashes very similar to Poison Ivy in some people. I happen to be sensitive to juniper; others react to spruce. Most of the other plants that I've heard causing this kind of reaction (Euphorbia and Dictaminus, e.g. ) wouldn't be growing this time of year. But juniper and spruce certainly would.

There is a plant called Jewelweed or Touch-Me-Not that, despite its name, is soothing for the skin somewhat like aloe. It often grows in the same kind of wood margins that Poison Ivy likes. A folk remedy for PI is to rub it with Touch-Me-Not as soon as you are exposed. It's worked for me on small spots. Touch-me-not is common and easily recognized but it's an annual so you won't see it this time of year.

Roundup (or one of its generic versions with the same active ingredient: glyphosate) is the most effective herbicide against Poison Ivy that is safe and responsible to use (unlike crap like triclopyr and methane arsenate, which are sold as Poison Ivy Killer). It breaks down quickly, does not penetrate soil, and is not toxic to animals including humans (but please don't drink it, OK). It will kill almost any plant whose foliage it touches so it's not good to use when the PI grows amongst desirable plants. Unfortunately it's only effective on actively growing plants, which means you'll have to wait until later in the spring to use it.

I wear protective clothing (long sleeve shirt and long pants and boots and gloves) and pull PI by hand. I've never contracted PI from doing that (although I have in other ways). I carefully remove the gloves and shirt and throw them in a plastic bag to soak in soap later and wash my hands thoroughly. I wouldn't recommend doing this unless you're very good at recognizing PI and are very careful.

I had a client who had a nasty run-in with PI and ended up in the hospital to get prednisone injections. Eating it, inhaling its fumes from buring it, using it to wipe your ass (I know someone who did this), or just a lot of touching it, can cause a systemic reaction which is dangerous and requires medical intervention.

Good luck.
posted by TimeFactor at 11:32 PM on January 19, 2005

What's a systemic reaction? Is that why I have the rash in places I know were not exposed? I've got it on my scalp, in my armpits, behind my ears, and all over my chest and back and legs. I look like I've been flogged with the stuff.
posted by fandango_matt at 11:51 PM on January 19, 2005

That doesn't sound like poison {ivy|sumac|oak} to me. The contact-poison urushiol plant stuff tends, in general, to respect clothing borders. While it is possible to spread it around, it usually does not spread extensively to all sorts of places covered by clothing as you describe. You sure you didn't get bitten by a tick? Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (no, actually it's quite rare in the Rockies; we see it in the East), or some other microbe may be to blame. If it's Lyme disease, the rash will go away but you'll still be infected, so you may want to see a doc before the rash goes away.

Or it could be pityriasis or some other viral exanthem (varicella? smallpox?), or secondary syphilis, or who knows what else.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:21 AM on January 20, 2005

My sister had poison oak on her arm once and my grandma wrapped her arm with an oatmeal poultice in an ace bandage. It worked like a charm and the poison didn't spread.
posted by cass at 6:42 AM on January 20, 2005

I'm not a doctor so I'm not responsible, don't sue me, etc. but in a systemic reaction the rash will spread, without additional PI contact, to other parts of the body and you'll get other symptoms like malaise and maybe fever.

One note about poison sumac: if you're wondering if the sumacs on your property are poison sumac, they aren't (unless you live in a swamp). Poison sumac only grows in very wet locations or with roots actually submerged. The common sumacs you see growing by the side of the road and elsewhere are completely harmless.
posted by TimeFactor at 8:14 AM on January 20, 2005

fandango_matt: All the advice about soap, washing your clothes, etc. is good, but at this point, all the urushiol is off your skin. So concern yourself with oatmeal baths, calamine lotion, or whatever is the most soothing. (Hot showers, however, are a bad idea. As Secret Life of Gravy pointed out, this will send the histamines into overdrive, which could actually make you more sensitive to urushiol in the future.)

ikkyu2 is wrong; you can indeed have the rash pop up in places the urushiol never touched, because once the urushiol is absorbed through the skin, it circulates (to a small degree) in the bloodstream. Since you have it behind your ears, I'm pretty goddamn sure you've got a systemic reaction.

Again, I'll recommend a homeopathic remedy, Rhus Tox, potency 6c. It can be found at your local health food store, for about $6. The homeopathy works directly with your immune system, and for a systemic outbreak, this is just what you need.
posted by Specklet at 12:37 PM on January 20, 2005

I just re-read my post and want to clarify: I don't think you have a systemic reaction because it's behind your ears in particular (that would be silly), I think you have a systemic reaction because it's everywhere.
posted by Specklet at 2:35 PM on January 20, 2005

Update: I just came from the doctor, whose medical assessment of my (most likely systemic) reaction was, "Oh my God!" Diagnosis: I'm terribly sensitive to Poison Oak--which is weird, because I don't remember getting it anywhere near this badly as a wee child. I had an outbreak a few years ago in Hawaii--which, at the time, I thought was caused by swimming through a school of jellyfish. I now know it was from crouching on the ground with my camera the day before.

I now have a prescription of Prednisone--2 20mg tablets/day for 5 days, then 1 tablet/day for 5 days. Whee.

Thanks again, everyone, for all your advice and help. I appreciate it.
posted by fandango_matt at 6:25 PM on January 20, 2005

ikkyu2 is wrong; you can indeed have the rash pop up in places the urushiol never touched, because once the urushiol is absorbed through the skin, it circulates (to a small degree) in the bloodstream.

I was not wrong; nor did I disagree with the rest of your statement. What you describe, and what apparently happened to fandango matt, is unusual enough that it deserves to have a doc eyeball it, because there are other things in the differential diagnosis.

I do this for a living, man. Back off.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:13 PM on January 22, 2005

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