I have a very low sensitivity to poison oak which means that I can stand in the middle of a big patch of it and not get a rash. I know this because I have stood, accidentally, in the middle of a big patch of it and didn’t get a rash. I have had a lot of exposure to it in my life and when my mom and brother would come down with horrible allergic reactions, I (who had been in the same places as them) would be spared. This luck means that I have gone my whole life not having to worry about remedies for poison oak or seek relief for the itching it causes.
That has changed over time as my son got his first poison oak rash when he was three and though that time wasn’t too bad, every time he gets it he has a much worse allergic reaction than the last time. I did some research the first time he got it and read as much as I could about it and discovered that there are some myths about poison oak that have been busted by science but which are difficult to bust in the minds of many who suffer from it.
The biggest myth is that once you get poison oak your rash is contagious and you can give it to others. This is NOT true. What gives people the rash is an oil produced in poison oak, called urushiol, which bonds with the proteins in your skin within the first 10 to 15 minutes of contact and once it has bonded the urushiol is absorbed into your skin and cannot be transferred to anyone else.
I have assembled a number of sources of information about poison oak which explain well that you can’t spread your own poison oak rash by scratching, the oozing that sometimes occurs can’t spread your rash either. If you suffer from a sensitivity to poison oak and you don’t already know these things, please read up! It will help you manage your rash exposure to know how you can get reintroduced to the oils through clothes and pet fur and will ease your mind to understand that you aren’t contagious once you’ve gotten the rash.
Once you have it, there’s nothing you can do to get rid of it. For those who have severe reactions (my mother has been hospitalized from allergic reactions to poison oak) you may need to go to the hospital and get a steroid shot, but this is only done in very severe cases. For everyone else the only thing you can do is control the itching and promote the healing of your rash by drying the sores and blisters out.
We have used a medicated steroid creme to help control the itching of my son’s poison oak rashes in the past and while it did help, it was not as efficacious as we could have hoped. We have also resorted to using Itch-x from the pharmacy which does work well to control the itching for short periods of time but fails to help heal the rash itself which needs to be dried out, not kept moist with ointment. During his most recent rash, which was worse than any of the previous ones he’s gotten, he was itching so much that he was raising big welts on his arms and body and causing his rash to bleed. We listened to some suggestions from other people (there are soaps meant to help with poison oak) and then my mom asked why we didn’t use Calamine lotion.
I really didn’t know why I hadn’t tried it before. I remembered that I had some green clay I’d gotten from an herbal shop and decided we’d try that. Isn’t Calamine lotion mostly clay-like? Maybe not, but I went home and mixed up some of my green clay and my kid was completely game (desperate) to try it so I covered all his rashes with the clay. He was really happy with the results. He told me it helped with the itching better than the ointments and felt more comforting. We continued to use it for a week, applying it liberally every single night before bed. Here’s what I used:
1/3 cup green clay (Montmorillonite)
2 tbsp water
Measure out the clay into a ramekin and add the water. Stir it until all the powder is incorporated and you have gotten most of the lumps out. It should be thick.
The thickness makes it easier to get full coverage over the rash. Too thin and it won’t work as well.
It should be thick enough that it doesn’t drip or slip when you scoop some up with your finger.
Apply it liberally to every area of your skin affected by the rash. You may need to undress to do this. Let it dry before covering it with clothes.
When you’re done applying the first round, you can put the rest of the clay in a small jar with a tightly sealing lid. It will stay hydrated and ready for your next application if you keep the lid on when not in use. How much you need will vary greatly depending on the extensiveness of your rash. We used the clay treatment for a little over a week and I mixed up about this amount three times. Use the above ingredients as a ratio and multiply to make a bigger batch ahead of time if you think you’ll need it.
An acquaintance of mine told me she uses clay for her son too, but she gets it directly from her property, so if you have clay in your yard do try to use that first! You won’t even have to mix it up and it will be free! She says it’s the only remedy that’s given relief to her son who is very sensitive to poison oak just like mine.
I bought my clay from an herb shop online, you may be able to find it at local shops that carry natural herbs and beauty supplies.
Poison oak information:
Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac Information Center
Cleveland Clinic: The Poison Plants
Andrew Weil on Poison Oak
Poison Oak FAQ
CDC on Poison Oak and other poisonous plants