This time of the year folks start worrying about bug bites-and the dreaded case of poison oak or poison ivy. I know they’re different plants-but we always called the itchy stuff poison oak no matter which plant it came from. Growing up I was lucky-I never had poison oak-but that wasn’t the case for others in my family.
Granny is highly allergic to the stuff. Honest to goodness-certain times of the year she can walk through the yard and catch it from the wind blowing. When she was pregnant with me she had a horrible case of poison oak-her and Pap always said that’s why I didn’t get it-that I had built up an immunity to it when Granny was carrying me.
Paul and Steve didn’t get that same immunity. One of the worst cases Paul ever had was during the middle of the winter. It was in the late 70’s during one of the coldest winters on record for our area. We still had gravity water and it had frozen solid. Pap built fires along the length of black pipe that wasn’t buried to thaw it. Paul and I loved it-we played in the fires and explored the woods. We inadvertently burned poison oak, and in just a day or so Paul was eat up with the raised itchy patches. Paul’s case was severe so Pap took him to a local pediatrician who proceeded to explain to Pap that the boy could not have poison oak-as it was the dead of winter. After the doc left the room her nurse told Pap “she’s crazy as a loon that’s poison oak if I’ve ever seen it!” A trip to a different doctor got Paul a much needed shot and medication for his aliment.
Steve’s job often requires him to be in weedy brushy areas and he has become an expert at heading his outbreaks off as soon as he notices one-but he’s also had to have shots on more than one occasion.
Sadly, my immunity ran out summer before last. I was helping a lady friend work in her flowers and apparently in the process of pulling armfuls of weeds I pulled up poison oak. At first I didn’t really know what it was-I went and showed my arms to Pap. He thought it looked like poison oak-but said he didn’t know since I’d never had it before surely it wasn’t.
To say I was in misery is an understatement. After a few days of the mess Steve came to check on me-he took one look and said “yep that’s poison oak.” For over a week I tried every home remedy you’ve ever heard of-from oatmeal to peroxide-nothing helped. Finally on a Saturday afternoon I gave up the fight and paid a visit to a local urgent care center. The doctor who saw me said “you waited about a week too long to come” he gave me 2 shots and sent me back by the hospital emergency room for a couple of pain killers. My own stubbornness made me wait to go to the doctor-and I have faint scars on the insides of each arm to remind me I’m no longer immune to poison oak-and I don’t ever want to have that vile affliction again.
A few home remedies I’ve heard about:
- fingernail polish-Granny swears by this one. At the first little sign of a bump or patch cover it with fingernail polish-supposedly it seals the place off from air and helps it dry up
- clorox to kill the poison
- spread cooked oatmeal on the patches to relieve the pain/itching and to dry the areas up
- mix baking soda with water and put on patches
- use vinegar to stop the itching
- use buttermilk to relieve the itch
- rub patches with peroxide or alcohol to kill the poison and dry up the areas-this one-hurts so bad but feels so good at the same time-make sense?
- several remedies suggest taking a bath in salt, soda, or oatmeal water-while others warn of never taking a bath
One of my favorite books on folk medicine-Folk Medicine In Southern Appalachia by Anthony Cavender has this to say about remedies for poison oak/ivy:
“poultices of cooked or crushed leaves of peach tree, jewelweed, ragweed, red oak, willow, or nightshade; juice of a green tomato or milkweed; and topical solutions of red oak or willow bark. Frequently reported nonbotanical remedies include buttermilk, soda paste, Epsom salt solution, cow’s cream (sometimes mixed with gunpowder), a biscuit soaked in sweet milk, calamine lotion, salt water solution, and bleach. According to some reports it was believed that one could develop an immunity to poison ivy by eating some of it’s leaves. This dangerous and potentially fatal folk belief still circulates today.”
Ever since I had my horrible case of poison oak-you better believe I’ve watched out for it-and I’ve took notice of any remedies I come across too. One mentioned in Cavender’s book-is Jewelweed. I’ve recently read several positive accounts of the use of this native plant. When I was growing up we called it ‘wild touch me nots’ -because at the end of the summer you can ‘touch’ their seed pods and watch them explode. Generally the plants grow in shady damps places and can reach 2-3 feet tall. The juice of the plant is a natural cortisone and is supposed to be an excellent remedy for poison oak, poison ivy, bee stings, and bug bites. I hope to never have poison oak again-but if I do I’m going to try jewleweed as a remedy.
Ever had posion oak? What remedy does your family use?