"Why are there so many of these vines climbing my trees this year? Well, at least they are very easy to pull down. This shouldn't take too long to clear." Brilliant idea, especially a couple hours in when I remembered "isn't there something about leaves of three - leave it be?"
I am undergoing my worst poison ivy reaction in my life. Like 7 in 10 adults I am allergic to urushiol though my reaction fortunately does not include massive swelling. I am used to the occasional outbreak, usually picked up from trail running or one of my dogs discovering a patch of it in my yard before I do, but nothing quite as bad as naively attempting to remove a large amount without proper protection.
(It takes as little as ten minutes for 50% of the urushiol exposed to unprotected skin to be absorbed. Water can rinse it off, and dish detergent can also help.)
Last year I had a minor outbreak after a trail run and set about doing some research into what remedies exist. There are two major chemical ones, one of which you should be able to acquire at your local 24 hour pharmacy immediately:
Zanfel is an over the counter topical ointment that is likely based on a cheaper product, described below. Its sold in very small quanities for outrageous prices - $40 for a 1 oz. tube is typical. It works and may be all you need if you have a small annoying outbreak, say behind your knee or in the crook of your arm.
Mean Green Power Hand Scrub is an industrial cleaner that works extremely well. It happens to be substantially cheaper than Zanfel and you can purchase a huge 60 ounce container of it and keep it on hand for years. It is also an excellent replacement for heavy duty hand cleaning products like Gojo.
There are other cleaners which require use just after exposure and can help manage itching, though with the products listed above its unlikely you'll need them with the exception of tried and true Caladryl (generically: calamine lotion).
When You Are Exposed
Put your clothes into a bucket with dish detergent or put them immediately into the washing machine - don't leave them around for others to handle. Take a shower and use Mean Green to gently scrub everywhere. This can reduce the amount of outbreak you'll experience, even if you made my mistake and waited hours.
If possible you should also go to an Urgent Care facility and receive a steroid shot before symptoms begin to occur. I didn't know about this when my latest bout began so I don't know about how effective it is but it seems like getting a professional opinion is never a bad thing. (I'm only able to speak from my own experience.)
If Your Case is Not Severe
Generally if a small portion of your skin breaks out you may discover it gets bigger or appears in other places on your body over time. Continue to wash with Mean Green each time you shower to eliminate itching (see below) and hopefully reduce the amount of your body's surface area that reacts adversely.
If Your Case is Severe
Here's what I did to manage the itching and practically remove the reaction in just over a week:
- At the outset wash with Mean Green every 6 to 8 hours. Gently massage the cleaner on the rash and non-effected areas. It feels exactly like the euphoric feeling of scratching the rash but without the painful after effects. The detergent in Mean Green helps neutralize remaining urushiol and your body's reaction that causes the blisters to itch. To perform this step properly:
a. Use the hotest water you can tolerate (this helps reduce the itching for a longer period of time)
b. Wet the area to be cleaned
c. Wet your hand
d. Get a palmful of Mean Green
e. Rub it into a plaster-like consistency
f. Apply it to the area using circular motions
f. Gently massage until you get tired of the euphoric scratching sensation or the itch goes away (on this round I spent over a minute on each leg; gentle is key)
- After toweling and air drying - about 10 minutes - apply Caladryl lotion. The generic store brand calamine lotions are also just as effective. The CVS brand spray-can calamine is legit but requires re-application every couple of hours so it may mean waking up during the night to do this. (Don't worry, your rash will act as an alarm clock.) You will feel a burning sensation on the rash as the calamine dries the skin.
Once a few days have passed your may find that your rash no longer itches and you will likely be able to discontinue the use of Mean Green though Caladryl helps dry any weeping your blisters may produce.
If your rash is still bothering you on day 3 or later you may be able to get away with just Mean Green cleaning once in the morning and once before bed. However if you wake up during the night don't try to rub the the rash and hope you can fall back to sleep - get in the shower and Mean Green again if you feel like it will help. It certainly did for me - and I followed up these showers with Caladryl applications as described above.
In the mornings your skin will feel very dry from the Caladryl.
I also went to a walk in clinic and had oral steroids prescribed which I am certain have helped; though I was unable to do this until four days into my current reaction at which point the itching was no longer a major problem.
Other remedies I researched:
Hot Water effective at reducing the severity of the itching, and the water running over the rash feels like scratching but without opening sores. Moderate pain level, and part of my formula above.
Hair Dryer effective at reducing the severity of the itching; feels like scratching, especially when the skin heats up. High pain level. Don't recommend.
Coconut Oil was unable to secure any with which to test.
Epsom Salt Bath felt the Mean Green/Caladryl formula above required no additional soothing.
Oatmeal Bath same as epsom salt bath.
Chlorine dangerous - this is extremely painful but its how I "cured", i.e., burned away my outbreaks when I was in the Marine Corps. Absolutely do not recommend. Terrible.