Poison ivy, poison oak, and the lesser known skin irritator, poison sumac, can all cause a conundrum in the search of itch relief: to scratch or not to scratch. Fortunately, there are a number of home remedies one can try to help alleviate the itch(ing), with many like coffee, a banana, baking soda, or mouthwash likely already in-house for most.
What makes these plants such rash triggers is the resin found in their leaves, stems, and roots — urushiol oil. This sticky substance, this sap, prompts an allergic reaction for most people; 85% of Americans are allergic to poison ivy, and since urushiol is the culprit, one can deduce it's about the same number for those who can't tolerate poison oak or poison sumac.
One way to help fend off a bout with poison ivy is to become familiar with what the plant looks like. Same deal with oak and sumac. As the old saying goes, "Leaves of three, let them be." That's a good one to remember as poison ivy typically grows in groups of three leaves or leaflets.
Its stomping grounds are the northern United States, Canada, and the Great Lakes region, but the plant can be found throughout the US, with the exception of Alaska, parts of the West coast, and the island state of Hawaii. Note that poison ivy can have more than three leaves, too, so it's better to be able to recognize its shape (smooth or toothed edges) and appearance, which can take on the characteristics of a vine or small shrub. The leaves are reddish in the springtime, green in the summer, and appear yellow-orange or red in the fall.
For poison oak, its fuzzy green leaves resemble that of an oak's and, like poison ivy, it usually has three leaves. Also like poison ivy, though, it can have more than three leaves — up to seven. Assuming the look of a low shrub with lobed leaves, it can be found in the eastern and southern United States. It may have yellow-white berries. It's also found on the Pacific coast where it appears as a vine or tall clump.
Lastly, there's sumac, which can grow as a tree or shrub and has a minimum of seven smooth-edged leaflets and as many as 13. Note that its colors can range from yellow to red and change with the seasons. What's more, it may have yellow-greenish flowers and/or fruit clusters. It grows exclusively in wet soil and is most common in the Midwest, but can also be found in the Northeast and parts of the Southeast.
Also, note that this dermatitis is not contagious; The only way to get it is through contact, either directly or indirectly if the resin makes its way onto clothes, tools, or your pet. Reaction to poison ivy, oak, or sumac can happen within hours or take days. What's more, if not cleaned off, urushiol oil can remain potent for years.
The first sign or symptom will be an itchy rash, which brings us to the "how" of remedying it. The American Academy of Dermatology says poison ivy can last for up to three weeks, so it's definitely helpful to have various ways to somehow relieve it.
If you find you've been exposed to urushiol oil, try and wash it off with soap and water as soon as you can. With luck, you'll get it off you before it penetrates the skin and "hello dermatitis."
If it's too late, though, and the itching has begun, then it's time to employ some home remedies like coffee. Yes, the next time you find yourself the target of poison ivy, oak, or sumac, pour some cold coffee directly onto the affected area. Why? The chlorogenic acid in the java has an anti-inflammatory property that may help reduce the oil's irritation.
Other household items that can help you fight the itch: the inside of a banana peel, cucumber slices, raw potatoes, and aloe vera juice. Any of these can be applied to a poison ivy, oak, or sumac rash with the promise of relief — for at least some people. Of course, not every remedy will work 100 percent; It will take some testing to see which is best for you. While there is no cure for any of these common rashes, relief aids like these can certainly make the wait for recovery more bearable.