This column appeared in the Colorado Springs Gazette. To syndicate the national version, contact DrHubbard [at] TheSurvivalDoctor [dot] com.

by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac can cause some of the worst itching known to mankind. And it can last as long as a couple of weeks—sometimes longer.

You can get it in the winter (the oil, called urushiol, stays in the vines, roots and twigs all year long), but since we usually get outside and bare more skin in warmer weather, that’s when we’re more prone to come in contact.

Although there’s no vaccine and no surefire cure for rashes, there are some things that can help.

  1. Know what the poisonous plants look like, and avoid them. Leaves of three, let them be. I know, not all leaves of three are dangerous. But unless you’re an expert in plant identification, I’d advise not taking a chance.
  2. If you do get into poison ivy, see if any jewelweed is growing nearby. The two plants prefer the same boggy locations. Jewelweed can counteract poison ivy’s effects. Just grab a bunch, crush it up—stems and all—and smear it on your skin. But, please, make sure that’s what it is. I’d hate it if you smeared a bunch of poison ivy all over you.
  3. If you wash the oil off your skin soon enough, you may be able to prevent a reaction. After contact, it starts bonding to your skin within about 10 minutes. It takes about an hour to bond completely. Even after four hours, you may lessen the rash by washing. It’s worth a try. Use soap and water, rubbing alcohol or plain water, in that order of preference. Commercial products work also. Some people swear by Tecnu products, such as Oak-N-Ivy. Jewelweed soap is effective but hard to find in stores. It is available on the Internet.
  4. Don’t forget to wash your clothes, and your dog. Bathe your furry pal with gloves so you don’t get the oil on you. You’ll probably want to jump back in the shower after you’re done, just in case.
Conventional at-Home Treatments

Hydrocortisone cream can help. The strongest you can get over-the-counter is 1 percent.

Calamine lotion is an option. Don’t get the Caladryl since it can cause its own allergic reaction.

Oral antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) ease the itching but can make you drowsy (sometimes a good thing).

Other Home Remedies

You can try more jewelweed soap for washing and maybe some witch-hazel astringent for drying oozing spots. Quercetin drops, also hard to find but available on the Web, have anti-inflammatory effects and can be taken orally and rubbed on the rash. Cool baths, cool compresses and oatmeal baths can help the itching.

If none of the other is working and the itching is driving you crazy, try getting in the shower with the water as hot as you can stand it. (Obviously don’t burn your skin.) Apparently this depletes your body’s supply of itch-causing histamines and can give you relief for a few hours.

Doctor Treatments

A steroid shot or course of oral steroids, or both, may help—even shorten the rash’s duration. You might also get a stronger steroid cream. No matter what, you’re likely in for a few days to a couple of weeks of itching.

If you run fever or there’s pus in some blisters, or you’re having any other signs of infection, get to the doctor.


Colorado Springs family doctor James Hubbard teaches how to survive when you can’t get to a doctor at TheSurvivalDoctor.com, one of the most popular survival websites. Dr. Hubbard is the author of the best-selling e-books
The Survival Doctor’s Guide to Wounds and The Survival Doctor’s Guide to Burns.