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POISON IVY SURVIVAL GUIDE
Beware of poison ivy -- it's not just a summer problem and you don't even have to touch it
directly to get it. In most people, poison ivy shows up as a rash consisting of small bumps,
blisters or swelling. The rash might appear in streaks, reflecting how you brushed by the
plant or its oil, called urushiol. Unfortunately, for some people who are highly sensitive to it,
even limited exposure results in a full body breakout, as the toxins get deep into their
system. My daughter's best friend had a case like this recently. The doctors put her on
repeated doses of prednisone to ease the inflammation. but even the prednisone didn't
prevent new skin eruptions, since it doesn't stop immune system activity. How to minimize
the misery -- offer systemic support and quiet the histamine response -- when suffering from
To find out about treatment for poison ivy, I called Chris Meletis, ND, a physician in
Beaverton, Oregon, and executive director for the Institute for Healthy Aging. About 85% of
people develop an urushiol allergy, though older adults tend to be more resistant. However,
about 10% of people get particularly nasty reactions to it -- people whose skin is especially
thin, if their skin is more reactive in general or if they have any kind of abrasions on their
skin. Such people also tend to be the ones whose rash lasts longer than it does in others.
The rash itself isn't dangerous, but given the amount of discomfort it causes, the challenge is
to find how to treat it so that it becomes more bearable.
WASH FAST AND THOROUGHLY
Dr. Meletis says to take immediate action if you know you have come in contact with poison
ivy. Wash the affected area as soon as possible to remove all traces of urushiol from your
skin. Take care before you wash or shower that you don't cross-contaminate by touching the
affected area and then another part of your body. Should you get urushiol on your hands, any
other place on your body that you touched with them -- including your face or even your eyes
if you rubbed them -- will break out. The palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, where
skin is thick, are usually spared. Use mild soap and cool water to wash and wash and wash,
he says, because hot water can aggravate the rash and spread the irritants that contribute to
the spread of the rash.
But, if like many people, you weren't aware of the contact and so didn't wash the urushiol off
in time, you will need to prepare for battle. Dr. Meletis recommends adding the following to
your medicine chest to use for the duration (follow label directions carefully).
Hydrocortisone cream -- a number of brands are available in your drugstore.
Calamine lotion -- the pink stuff used for chicken pox before vaccination was
Antihistamine -- anything with Benadryl (diphenhydramine), such as Tylenol PM, will
do, but be warned that Benadryl causes sleepiness.
Cool-water oatmeal baths -- Aveeno and similar products are good. or make your
own by mixing a cup of oatmeal with three cups of cold water and adding it to the
Calendula salve -- an ancient remedy made from marigolds, is excellent for poison ivy
and also other kinds of skin irritation, including sunburn.
Rhus tox (a homeopathic preparation, Rhus toxicodendron) -- talk to a trained
professional about proper dose. but you can also use over-the-counter poison ivy
Whole-milk compress. Use whole milk, not skim. It is the fat in the milk that brings
DEEP-SEATED POISON IVY
Although rare, it is possible to have a "super-sized" case of poison ivy. In these instances,
the rash goes deep into the tissue, is resistant to ordinary treatments and hangs on, making
the afflicted person miserable sometimes for several months. I asked Daily Health News
contributing medical editor Andrew Rubman, ND, about who is vulnerable to severe cases
and what he/she should do, since mainstream doctors tend to treat with prednisone, an
extremely powerful and risky drug. Dr. Rubman explains that some people are simply more
sensitive to poison ivy, as are those who are immune-compromised or who are taking
medications that compromise the digestive process, including proton pump inhibitors, beta
blockers and chemotherapy drugs.
Since the inflammatory response is at the core of severe poison ivy reactions, Dr. Rubman
says that strengthening the digestive system will help reduce the allergic reaction. But
poison ivy doesn't come in through food, right? True. However, healthy digestion removes
many inflammation inducers and prevents others that are in foods from entering the tissues.
This in turn may help prevent the poison ivy response from triggering the deep tissue
reaction that is seen in severe cases. The treatment challenge, he says, is to limit the
inflammatory response while at the same time build up the body's ability to fight off the
poison ivy "infestation." This requires natural anti-inflammatory medications, including
leukotriene mediators such as beta-carotene and fish oils that help the tissues regenerate
and strengthen. However, Dr. Rubman cautions that this is too complex to do on your own
and requires the supervision of a knowledgeable naturopathic physician or other health-care
professional trained in these areas.
The urge to scratch poison ivy is great, and many people give in. Scratching doesn't spread
the rash further, but it can cause a different problem -- bacterial infection. Should a fever of
more than 100 degrees develop or the blisters start to ooze pus instead of blister fluid, call
the doctor, who will probably start you on a course of antibiotics.
PREVENTION IS EVERYTHING
Clearly the best way to handle poison ivy, so to speak, is to avoid any contact with it. That
includes your clothes and other objects as well. Even if you don't touch the plant, but your
clothes do, you can still get infected later when removing your clothes. You can even get
poison ivy from your pet after he/she romps outside. So be alert. For people who have poison
ivy on their property, clear it by wearing gloves and protective clothing and wash all items,
along with any garden tools, you used right away, preferably in old-fashioned brown lye
soap. If you can't wash immediately, put the contaminated items in plastic bags or sealed
containers to prevent cross-contamination of other clothes. Urushiol can remain active for
years, including on that jacket in your closet. Never burn poison ivy -- burning the plant
releases urushiol into the air, where it can be carried by the smoke and cause a skin reaction
or lung irritation.
And, a word of warning. poison ivy knows no seasons. You can still get it in the winter if you
come into contact with the vine or plant.
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