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.
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.
Jewelweed (Impatiens spp.). This well-known weed tends to grow near poison ivy and historically has been used in all stages of treating a poison ivy rash. Many people simply pick a branch of the juicy herb, crush it up and apply it to the affected area. However, Susun Weed, director of the Wise Woman Center in Woodstock, New York, and author of New Menopausal Years (Ash Tree, 2003), has found another method she says works more effectively. Pick the whole plant — roots and all — and simmer it over the stove for 15 to 30 minutes until the water turns orange. This color is from the reddish roots, which contain chemicals that appear to act like the anti-inflammatory steroid cortisone. Once you strain out the herb and cool the “tea,” you can freeze it in ice-cube trays and apply directly to your skin.
Green or bentonite clay. Rosemary Gladstar, the Vermont–based founder of United Plant Savers and author of Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal (Storey, 2001), once used her toothpaste in desperation on a nasty bout of poison oak. It worked better than her tried-and-true remedies. The toothpaste company is no longer in business, but you can make a paste yourself by mixing green clay, salt and white vinegar, then adding a few drops of peppermint essential oil.
Clay can be used in many ways. Any type will help draw out irritating oils and soothe your itch. Even mud will do in a pinch, says Andrea Candee of South Salem, New York, and author of Gentle Healing for Baby & Child (Pocket Books, 2003). 7Song generally uses bentonite (available at health-food stores and herb shops) because it is strong and cheap. Mix it with your choice of soothing and disinfecting herbs, like slippery elm and goldenseal. Gladstar sometimes adds a few drops of tea tree or lavender essential oil. “You can make [the clay] ahead of time. It won’t dry out as long as the lid is on tightly,” Gladstar says. Spread the damp clay on your rash as often as needed and let it dry there. You also can use this clay on mosquito and black fly bites.
Oatmeal works well for any itchy condition. It soothes irritated skin while also drawing out any remaining toxins. An oat bath is ideal for a large rash that already has settled in. “Make a big pot of soupy oatmeal, strain it into the tub and put the rest in a sock,” Phillips recommends. You will want the bath water to be tepid or cool because hot water can further irritate poison oak and ivy. Use the goopy sock like a sponge and let the oat slime ooze over your rash. “Or grind up the organic oat flakes and make a cold paste and smear it on,” Flint says. “As the oats and water dries, it pulls out the oily exudate into the oat particulate. Your rash won’t spread, and it gives you relief.”
“The thing about itching — it’s a stagnant problem,” 7Song explains. Mosquitoes insert irritating saliva into your skin. The saliva reacts in your skin, making you itch. “The [bug saliva] is localized in your body. Your goal is to neutralize it.” Most of the anti-itch remedies for poison ivy and oak also work for bug bites.
Plantain (Plantago spp.). “I don’t know of any itch that can stand up to plantain,” Weed says. Plantain is a favorite bite and sting remedy of many herbalists, and for good reason. It stops the itch and pulls the bug’s toxins out of your skin. (It also works amazingly well for bee stings, Flint says.) “If it’s growing where you live, bend down, pick up a leaf, chew it (or crush it with a rock) and put it on the itch,” Weed says. “You should experience virtually instant relief.”
Lemon. When people come to 7Song covered in bug bites, he gives them a calming tea (such as skullcap or passionflower) to help soothe their nerves and then a piece of lemon to rub on the bites. Lemon juice seems to stop the allergic reaction to bug saliva. Baking soda and apple cider vinegar work similarly.
Tobacco. “One of the best things for pain or itchiness is tobacco,” 7Song says. “It can be anything — Virginia Slims or [high-quality] organic tobacco. If you have an itch ... just take tobacco, chew it, put it on there and it neutralizes the pain.” He warns that chewing the tobacco can be unpleasant.
Lavender and peppermint essential oils. These essential oils help stop the itching and disinfect the bite. You can apply them directly to the skin or add them to other mediums like clay. Peppermint oil can irritate some people’s skin, so test it on a small patch of your skin first; you also can dilute it in a teaspoon of olive oil or another vegetable oil.
Sangre de grado (Croton lechleri). For a more exotic remedy, turn to sangre de grado. This Peruvian herb’s name means “dragon’s blood” in Spanish, and Abascal learned about it while attending a class in South America. “I went down [to Peru] and did not realize — nobody told me — they had chiggers,” she says. “I managed to get all of these chigger bites that were itchy beyond belief.” She tried steroid creams and other remedies; nothing worked. Then a local shaman came to the rescue. “He showed me this tree and whacked it with his machete. Then he put [the resin] on the bites. It was just incredible in terms of soothing the itching.”
This resin is hard to find in stores, but it’s worth it when you do: It works on the toughest bites, from chiggers to fire ants to mosquitoes — any bite that burns and itches. It also contains some antimicrobial compounds, so it helps fight infections caused by the bites and itching.
Yellow onion. “The onion’s de-toxifying sulphur compounds help neutralize the poison of the bite or venom of the sting, reducing inflammation,” Candee explains. Just slice open an onion and rub it on the bite. Keep doing it as often as necessary until the itching stops.
An occasional run-in with one of these plants is often inevitable, but knowing how to identify them will help you avoid contact with their potent (and itch-causing) urushiol oil.
Poison Ivy, a vine or shrub, grows in parts of the eastern United States and in southern Canada. The plant often grows as a vine, twining on tree trunks or along the ground, but it also can form upright bushes.
The leaves of poison ivy consist of three pointed leaflets. They are reddish in the spring, green in the summer and various shades of yellow, orange or red in the fall.
Poison Oak grows in the western United States, mainly in California, the Pacific Northwest and nearby regions of Canada. It usually is seen as a shrub but also can grow as a vine (up to 80 feet tall).
Poison oak leaves also typically have three leaflets (sometimes five). Like poison ivy, new foliage and autumn leaves often turn bright shades of red and pink.
–Poison Ivy, Oak, & Sumac Information Center, www.poisonivy.aesir.com.
–Foster, Steven and Christopher Hobbs. A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.
Maria Noël Mandile is an herbalist and freelance writer in southern New Hampshire.
• Alternative Health & Herbs Remedies
Jewelweed tincture, soap bar and liquid spray
• Burt’s Bees
Poison Ivy Soap
• Herb Pharm
• Herbal Remedies USA
Boericke & Tafel’s Sting Stop Insect Gel
• Raintree Nutrition
Sangre de Grado resin
• Soaps Gone Buy
Fels-Naptha bar soap
• The Vermont Country Store
Fels-Naptha bar soap
The reference list for this article is extensive. If you would like a copy, please send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to “Nix the Itch,” Herbs for Health, 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609; or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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