How do you deal with poison oak, sumac, and ivy in general?
Scratchy in Santa Fe
If you come into contact with poison ivy, oak, or sumac the most effective “treatment” is to immediately and thoroughly wash the affected area thoroughly with soap and water. All three of these plants (and interestingly their distant cousin the mango) have the same allergenic oil, urushiol. Interestingly, not everyone is allergic to urushiol. While I’m allergic to everything else Mother Nature throws at me, I’ve never had a case of poison ivy despite my years and years of rambling in the woods, but enough about me.
So the structure of urushiol looks a bit like this, with alkyl chain at the R in the image. An alkyl chain is simply a bunch of carbon atoms with hydrogen attached kind of like this C/CC/CCH3 (That’s about the best I can do in a standard text editor, just pretend you get it). That alkyl chain makes the urushiol molecule difficult to dissolve in water.
However your skin has oils and urushiol will gladly hang out in those oils, having a party, raising blisters and an ugly rash.
The urushiol can be spread through contact, if you have some on your arm and you scratch, you may get the urushiol under your finger nails which will then be spread to your face or wherever you decide to touch before you wash. (And gentlemen, I’ve heard plenty of embarrassing stories about men not washing their hands thoroughly and -how do we put this delicately- spreading the fun to less public body parts and later assuming they have other issues that require a visit to the county health department.)
Despite the persistent old wives tale, you cannot spread poison ivy from the rash itself, UNLESS, that rash never got washed and still has urushiol. Got it?
If you don’t wash the oil promptly your skin may absorb the urushiol; which, as you can imagine may intensify your reaction. Some people even have systemic (whole body) reactions to poison ivy and will break out in rashes, even in places that have not had contact with the irritant.
Keep in mind that animals that have come in contact with poison ivy, oak, or sumac may spread the urushiol on their fur. If you’re especially sensitive, try to keep animals off of the furniture (especially beds) and bathe them thoroughly.
When removing poison ivy, sumac, or oak from your property, your best defense is to wear long pants, long sleeves, and gloves. Take this clothing and immediately place it in the washer – check out How to Remove Poison Ivy from Clothing, and wash your hands thoroughly. That’s it. There’s no magic trick. Sure there are plenty of products out there that claim to work especially well, but that’s mostly marketing. Wash the area with plain old soap or dish detergent (for hand washing, not the stuff you put in your dishwasher) and then treat the rash itself with your favorite OTC topical ointment.
Oh and a very important side note: Never burn poison ivy. That rash you get on your skin? It’s nothing compared to a potential reaction in the lungs.
Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.