It is estimated that two million people have a reaction to poison oak, poison ivy, or poison sumac each year. While all plants are sometimes referred to as poison ivy, poison oak is more prevalent in the West and Southwest of the United States. All plants are commonly found growing along roadsides, in the forest, and even in suburban backyards.
The allergic reaction to poison oak is from a toxin present in all parts of the plant known as urushiol. The blistering, itching, and swelling are a result of the body’s immune system trying to fight off this toxin. Urushiol is a highly potent poison, with even indirect contact, such as from clothing or an animal who has brushed against a poison oak plant, causing a reaction in people who are sensitive. Approximately sixty five percent of Americans are susceptible to urushiol, with children being the most sensitive.
Being such a common allergen, at one time many caretakers knew how to treat this reaction, but as our culture shifts towards a reliance on conventional medications, knowledge of natural remedies for poison oak wanes. How to treat poison oak? The fundamental precepts for treatment include cleansing the body, providing proper nourishment for healing, protecting from infection, and soothing the irritation and inflammation.
Once a reaction begins, it is important to focus on diet; eat only fresh foods, plenty of raw fruits and vegetables, juices and water. Drink one to two glasses of aloe vera juice every day during the reaction; aloe vera is an excellent healing food, with antibiotic and soothing properties. Vitamin C, magnesium, and zinc supplements will help the body deal with the histamine reaction and calm the nerves. Eliminate processed, greasy, or sugary foods as they will slow the healing process. Next, use topical remedies for poison oak to speed the recovery process and minimize itching — the toxin can be spread to other parts of the body through scratching oozing blisters.
Topical Treatments for Poison Oak
There are a number of different ointments, herbal infusions, and oils that can be used to treat a poison oak rash. Dabbing apple cider vinegar or an oatmeal paste (made from mixing oats and water) on the affected area will help by neutralizing the toxic effect of urushiol. Cooling, soothing, aloe vera gel is also wonderful for minimizing the reaction, as well as protecting the skin from infection. Vitamin A and E oil will increase healing, and a mixture of honey and goldenseal powder will both heal and reduce the swelling. Tea tree oil helps to remove damaged skin cells naturally, while at the same time protecting new skin tissue. Use one or two of these remedies for poison oak liberally, throughout the reaction.
Herbal infusions or salves can also help. Sassafras tea is good for disinfecting the area. Use a clean cloth to dab onto the skin. Marshmallow root tea will help by soothing, and speeding the healing process. Even wet black tea bags will offer some relief. A calendula salve will reduce inflammation, speed healing, and protect against bacteria.
Soothing baths are also great remedies for poison oak. Make sure the water is cool or tepid, as hot water can irritate the skin. Use oats, epsom salts with peppermint essential oil, or apple cider vinegar.
A reaction to urushiol usually manifests as a skin rash, although sometimes other symptoms such as stomach cramps, throat swelling, and diarrhea occur as well. In cases of a serious reaction, always consult a physician. Natural remedies for poison oak are ideal to sooth, and support the body’s natural healing process, but severe allergic reactions can be dangerous.
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Hoffmann, David. “The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal: A Safe and Practical Guide to Making and Using Herbal Remedies.” (Element Books, 1996).
photo credit: Slodocents
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