Summertime Woes: Herbal Remedies for Poison Oak, Poison Ivy and Bug Bites

Don’t let itching from poison oak, ivy or bug bites spoil your summertime fun. Natural remedies are as close as your backyard.

| July/August 2004

  • Jewelweed tends to grow near poison ivy and helps treat a poison ivy rash.
    Karen Shelton,

  • Karen Shelton,

  • Karen Shelton,
  • Yarrow

Welcome to summer and all that it means: barbecues, hiking, evening walks, lush gardens — and poison ivy, poison oak and bug bites. Welcome to the downside of summer. We all look forward to the barbecues, hiking and long hours in our gardens. But what about the bee stings, bug bites, and poison ivy and oak? One serious bout of poison ivy is enough to make you want to hide indoors and avoid the entire season.

But take heart: You really don’t have to hibernate or spend the entire season scratching. Many of the best anti-itch remedies are as close as your back yard, kitchen or local health-food store. These remedies work in various ways: They can neutralize the irritant that’s making you itch, draw out the toxin, block your inflammation response or quell the nerves that send irritation signals to your brain.

Not every remedy will work for everyone every time, says 7Song, the director of the Northeast School of Botanical Medicine in Ithaca, New York. Experiment with what you have to see what works best for you.

Outsmart Poison Oak and Ivy

Poison oak and ivy rashes are caused by potent urushiol oil. As little as one billionth of a gram of urushiol can irritate sensitive skin, and the oil stays active on unwashed clothes and dead plants for up to five years. If you think you’ve come into contact with poison ivy or oak, immediately wash your skin and clothes in cold, soapy water. Use a drying soap, like Fels-Naptha or Burt’s Bees Poison Ivy Soap, recommends Nancy Phillips, co-owner of Heartsong Farm Healing Herbs in Groveton, New Hampshire, and co-author of The Village Herbalist (Chelsea Green, 2001). If you already have a rash, anything hot will irritate it.

“When blood goes to the surface of your body, the itchiness gets worse,” 7Song explains. “When you flush, you itch. If you keep yourself calm and cool, in the shade with a little bit of water, you’ll have less itchiness.” Avoid spicy foods, the sun and hot water. Sip some cool, mildly sedating teas, such as skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) or chamomile (Matricaria recutita), recommends Margi Flint, owner of Earthsong Herbals in Marblehead, Massachusetts. These will be especially helpful if you’re emotionally worked up from the itchiness.

Grindelia (Grindelia spp.). While working first-aid tents at events like the Rainbow Gathering, 7Song turns to grindelia for cases of poison ivy. He says grindelia, a perennial herb native to the southwestern United States, works for most people. Kathy Abascal, director of the Botanical Medicine Academy in Vashon, Washington, and co-author of Clinical Botanical Medicine (Mary Ann Liebert, 2003), adds, “It seems to reduce the itching and the inflammation.” Grindelia is not well studied, so we don’t know how it specifically works. Apply grindelia tincture straight on the rash or dilute it slightly with water. This should make the itching stop immediately, 7Song says. If it doesn’t, time for another trick.

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