If you’ve been in or around the woods at all, you’ve probably heard the saying “leaves of three, let it be.” Sounds simple enough, right? Unfortunately, even for those allergic to poison ivy, it can be a bit more difficult than that to avoid breaking out in an unbearably itchy rash.
Being on the lookout for “leaves of three” is a great starting point, but what many of us aren’t taught is that poison ivy, oak and sumac all contain the same oil—urushiol—which, for some, can cause an allergic reaction when it binds to the skin and that fact can increase the odds of coming into contact with something bothersome.
Photos (left to right) by AdobeStock/Stuart Monk; AdobeStock/mendogyal.
Poison ivy is the most prevalent variety of these plants and can be found throughout most of the United States, excluding California and Hawaii. Poison oak is found throughout California, the Pacific Northwest, Midwest and East coast. Poison sumac also produces urushiol and is found in super-moist, swampy areas along the East, Gulf and Upper Peninsula coasts.
If you know you’ve come in contact with these plants, wash the affected area thoroughly with warm, soapy water as soon as possible to help avoid the resulting rash. Wash all clothing, tools or other personal items that could have come in contact as well, considering that the oil resin can remain active for years, causing future rashes to occur unbeknownst to you. And, in the event that you’ve already developed a rash, you can rest easy knowing there are natural ways to alleviate itching, redness and discomfort.
“Nature provides exceptions to every rule.” –Margaret Fuller
Even in the case of urushiol-induced rashes, Fuller is right. Nature is a powerful resource for healing, and provides us with the perfect antidote to soothe irritated skin. Often referred to as “touch-me-not,” jewelweed is part of the impatiens family and enjoys the same habitats as poison ivy, oak and sumac. Odds are, if you’ve stumbled into a patch, you can readily find nature’s cure nearby!
1. Locate orange-flowered jewelweed (Impatiens biflora) and harvest, making sure to keep stalks intact.
2. If outdoors, break the stalk and rub raw plant juices directly on exposed areas.
3. If treating at home, place stalks in a blender and blend thoroughly. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator through spring and summer. You can also boil crushed stalks to create an extract that can be frozen for up to 1 year.
If you aren’t in an area with abundant jewelweed habitats or can’t find any, French green clay is an excellent alternative. It works somewhat like Calamine lotion—but better, in my experience. Measure clay into a small, lidded jar, add water and stir to create a paste thick enough that it won’t drip or slip when applied. Apply clay to rash, let dry and cover with clothing. Seal your container to keep this remedy hydrated and ready for your next application.
Most health food stores also offer jewelweed soap and comfrey salves. Use the soap in the shower to help dry out the rash. Once the rash begins to dry out and heal, apply a soothing comfrey salve (try our DIY recipe if you can’t find one locally) to reduce redness, itching and speed-up healing time. Bonus: Keep your comfrey salve handy for minor scrapes, pain relief and bug bites.
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