How to Survive Poison Oak
!!!WARNING!!! Graphic image follows!
So, you've just hiked through a bunch of poison oak? And you want some advice? Some holistic, herbal, all natural suggestions on how to survive the next week of your life? You've come to the right place.
A long time ago, I got poison oak, real bad! I didn't realize that I had been exposed and so it got worse and worse until the oils got into my blood stream and blisters started popping up all over my body. Weeks went by, and since I had no idea what it was, it got worse until it got infected with staph. Then, I was in and out of the ER and hospitalized for a short time. Needless to say, it got really out of control and resulted in a very difficult time in my life. I got way sicker than I would have gotten, if I had had herbs on my side.
Ever since then, I've been really sensitive to poison oak. I never used to get it as a kid, but now I just have to look at it and I start itching. Below is some insight into what I've learned about poison oak, and how I treat it if I do get exposed.
Toxicodendron diversilobum is a member of the Sumac Family. It grows in disturbed soils along the Pacific Coast of North America in wooded/grassy bioregions, below 5,000 ft. "Leaves of three, let them be" is a traditional rhyme we are taught to identify and avoid the plant. When touched, the plant gives off urushiol, a resin that created an itchy, blistering rash, or contact dermatitis, appearing within 1-7 days of contact and lasting for a few days or a few weeks. The plant is more active in spring and summer, with new green growth that can turn red by fall or winter.
Products like Tecnu and Dr. Bronners (castille soap) are good to use immediately after contact with the plant. Clean the body in a shower or hose with cold water, scrubbing vigorously to reduce the amount of oil that remains on the skin. Warm or hot water will open the pours and allow the oil to enter the skin/body more readily.
By removing the oil shortly after exposure there is a higher likelihood that you will be spared of the rash. Be sure to wash hats, shoes, clothing and any gear that may have been in contact with the plant, to avoid spreading the oils further. Dogs too. It's easy to spread the oils unintentionally. The rash is contracted directly from the oils of the plant, in my experience it does not spread via the rash. However, the oils can get under fingernails or on bedsheets and spread easily by scratching and touching different parts of the body.
WHILE YOU WAIT
Poison Oak is a bit of a waiting game. It can take up to a week before the rash prevents it's self. In the mean time it's great to do preventative measures, like supporting the liver!
Why the liver? The liver is a filter, protecting the body from toxins and processes all sorts of stuff including alcohol and hormones. It has a huge connection to the skin, because what can't get filtered through the liver + digestive tract gets sent out of the body via the skin, resulting in acne or rashes. For this reason, I recommend using tinctures, capsules or preparing a tea of Licorice, Dandelion, Burdock and/or Turmeric.
I'm not picky when it comes to first aid. Whatever you have on hand will work. Use herbs from your spice cabinet if you have to. If using the dry herb, be sure to cook it for 30 min - hour. An easy way to do this is by using a crockpot. If you are sensitive to poison oak, it may be wise to keep an ounce or two of a liver tincture on hand to use for this occasion. Supporting the liver will reduce the severity and duration of the rash, should it occur, and may even allow you to skip it all together!
ITCH, BLISTER, OOZE, WEEP
These are the four stages of the Poison Oak rash that you must go through before the body starts to heal. It starts with a ghost itch, nothing seems to be there, then a blister forms and fills with clear liquid. Eventually the blister will open and weep, covering the rash with sebum, the yellowish-clear liquid produced by your sebaceous glands of the skin. This will dry and become crusty. If picked or removed before the skin is healed, the sebum ooze will return until skin is repaired. Once healed, lightly off-colored skin may remain in the location of the rash for several weeks.
Each step requires slightly different treatment. Here's a <GRAPHIC> picture of when I got Poison Oak on my face. From top to bottom, left to right, over a couple days. Photo 4 is very swollen and blistery, the skin appearing very textured. By Photo 7 you can see the oozing and crusting has started. Photo 9 is just after a hot shower once healing has started.
Try not to itch! This will only increase chances of infection. Remember, a lot of people carry bacteria, such as staph, in their nose, so it's easier than we think to have an open wound, such as oozing PO rash, to get infected!
Wipe oozing rash with rubbing alcohol, 8-12 x day. Rubbing alcohol can be harsh on the skin, you can also use tincture of Plantain or Grindelia, applied topically with clean cotton round. A tincture applied topically is also known as a liniment. I like to use rubbing alcohol because it keeps it clean.
Keep taking liver herbs, 2-4 x day. Nettle tea, a natural antihistamine can help too. Use 1 TBSP of herb/cup of boiling water, let sit 30 min - 8 hrs.
Take time to rest. While it may seems like a little rash, it's taking all the systems of your body to fight it off. Call in sick, cancel plans. This is serious. When you let your body rest, it can do wonders.
Drink water. Staying hydrated always helps the body to do it's thing.
Another option for a healing balm is a Clay Poultice. This is usually better towards the end of the oozing phase, as it starts to crust up and heal; mix clay and water (or Plantain tincture) and a couple drops of essential oil until it forms a thick paste. Apply a thick layer to the skin. Allow the poultice to dry and then follow with a bath or shower. Repeat 1-2 x daily until symptoms subside. Clay is very drying. Bentonite clay, Kanolin clay, Blue, Green, any! They are often sold as power in natural food/body stores for external use. I like to use lavender e.o., however any you have on hand will provide an antimicrobial effect.
A couple of my favorite products for PO available in stores are: Manzanita Magic, Herb Pharm “Soothing Oak and Ivy Compound,” Five Flavors' "Poison Oak and Ivy Liniment." The sprays are nice because you don't need to keep using cotton rounds. Keep one on hand for quick relief. Also reduces urge to itch.
I have also used Homeopathic remedies successfully to treat the condition.
Rhus diversiloba - used preventatively
Graphites - used once oozing appears
Oatmeal and baking soda baths can soothe symptoms, especially for kids.
Consider taking Skullcap, Catnip, California Poppy or Chamomile to relax the body, as the nervous system is going BONKERS!
I do not recommend putting oil based products like salves onto poison oak rash as it tends to keep the area moist rather than dry out and heal.
Once the erruptions have closed, you can use an all-purpose herbal salve or vitamin e oil to reduce scaring.
As always, the best medicine is prevention. Learn to identify Poison Oak, take measures to avoid it, and when you do come in contact with it, wash + take herbs as soon as possible.
Safe and happy trails!