Appalachia Appalachian Medicine Wildflowers & Trees Of Appalachia

Poison Oak

remedies for poison oak

This time of the year folks are 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. I was a lucky kid, 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. Pap always said that’s why I didn’t seem to be effected by the plant. He thought I 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 stayed frozen more than thawed during that bitter cold spell. Pap built fires along the length of black pipe that wasn’t buried to thaw it. Paul and I loved for the water to freeze because we played in the fires and explored the woods.

While playing in the fire 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. 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 requires him to be in weedy brushy areas and he has become an expert at heading off his outbreaks of poison oak as soon as he notices one, but he’s had to have shots on more than one occasion.

A few summers ago my streak of never having poison oak came to a screeching halt.  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 I had. I showed my arms to Pap and he said it sure looked like poison oak, but since I’d never had it he wasn’t sure.

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. I have faint scars on the insides of each arm to remind me 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 sign of a bump or patch cover it with fingernail polish-supposedly the polish 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 remedy hurts so bad but feels so good at the same time!
  • Several remedies suggest taking a bath in salt, soda, or oatmeal water-while others warn of never taking a bath.


jewelweed for poison oak

Jewelweed growing in a ditch at the bottom of my driveway

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 non-botanical 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.”

I’ve read several positive accounts about jewelweed’s use as a poison oak remedy. Generally the plants grow in shady damps places and can reach two to three feet tall. The juice of the plant is a natural cortisone and is also supposed to be an excellent remedy for bee stings and bug bites.

Granny said the first time she ever remembered having poison oak she had it on her face. Her mother, Gazzie, took her to town to see the pharmacist. He sold Gazzie some calamine lotion for Granny’s face. She said she’d never forget they smeared it all over her till she looked like a ghost. While they were in town Gazzie took Granny over to see her aunt. Granny said the elderly lady was scared by the child with the ghostly skin.

This summer Granny has had another bout of poison oak. She polished it up and then taped it up…only when she took off the tape she took part of her hide too. A shot from the doctor and some topical cream finally cleared up her poison oak and I’m keeping my fingers crossed no one else gets it this summer or ever for that matter!



You Might Also Like


  • Reply
    Steve Smith
    July 31, 2018 at 1:01 pm

    After I’ve cut grass or limbs around the edge of the yard, where the woods start, I have a routine that I follow, and it seems to work. I coat both arms and hands with hand sanitizer, then scrub it off with a soft brush and regular soap and water, as mentioned above. Since I have been following this routine, I have been free of the dreaded irritation. And I know it grows around on my property. I also try to be very careful to avoid it altogether. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

  • Reply
    Leilani Worrell
    July 8, 2017 at 7:05 am

    I am so allergic to poison ivy (or oak or sumac)! Recently I read that the really important thing to prevent an “infection,” for lack of a better word, is to vigorously scrub the afflicted area. I have a nail brush (soft brush for getting garden dirt out from under your fingernails); last time I knew I had gotten into poison ivy, I scrubbed and scrubbed my arms where the plant had touched. I never saw a rash. I didn’t use anything but the brush and water. I have tried calamine, bleach, Tecnu (which works, but is more expensive than water!), milk of magnesia, jewelweed juice and goodness knows how many other “remedies,” but I have had the best luck with plain water and scrubbing. The other IMPORTANT thing is to scrub ASAP after exposure.

  • Reply
    Lee Mears
    July 7, 2017 at 10:40 pm

    Poison oak is surely a miserable thing to have. Thankfully, I haven’t had it in years. My Mother was out of work for one month because of sever case of it from burning it in brush then breathing the smoke. It took doctors and hospital a while to diagnose as she had it in her mouth and nose as well as all over outer skin.
    Injections of cortazone are a life saver for the intense itching, blistering and spreading. Also the 2% RX cream.
    I’ve never found calamine lotion to help anything in any way but maybe that’s just me. I live in the woods on top of a mountain so when I see the dreaded three leaf enemy popping up anywhere on my property I go into full guerrilla mode and hit it with full strength RoundUP. But I know its still lurking around down there just waiting for me to turn my back.
    (We are fighting another weed up here called Stilt Grass that sneaked in from Asia apparently in shipping boxes maybe in Knoxville, ‘they say’. ? Its very invasive on your property but most of the neighbors are trying to keep it killed on their property with specific weed killer applied in Feb. As far as I know it doesn’t make one itch. Ive seen it around town tho so am guessing its a lost cause like kudzu.
    If only the deer would eat it and my grass instead of my flowers.. )

  • Reply
    July 7, 2017 at 9:10 pm

    I’m not sure about poison oak, but I know people can become sensitive to poison ivy as adults. I never had a problem with it, though I worked in the woods and had plenty of contact with it, until I was probably in my 40s. Then, whammo. I heard a similar story from someone who worked on a wildlife sanctuary and always got the job of brushcutting anytime there was poison ivy in the area, because she had no sensitivity to it at all. Until she did.
    What’s in the shot, Tipper? Sounds like good stuff.

  • Reply
    July 7, 2017 at 7:49 pm

    Our family has developed the rash after playing with the family dog. The oils clung to her fur and rubbed on us. This after an entire spring of doing battle with poison ivy so the babies wouldn’t get it when they visited in the summer!!
    If you know you’re exposed, cleaning and washing with something that breaks down oils. For my husband and I, simply washing us and our clothes as soon as possible with Dawn detergent stops the spread. Do pat dry (less likely to spread the oils than rubbing dry) with paper towels or immediately throw the towel in the wash with Dawn detergent so you don’t spread any residual oils. If the exposure is severe, wiping the area with Goop (or anything mechanics clean their hands with) first to break down the oils, then washing the Goop off with Dawn detergent is very effective. There are two products (no – I don’t own stock in them! 😉 ) Technu ivy and Iva-rest which do a really good job of cleaning the skin and come with some kind of cortisone cream to slow the itch. this seems to work a little better on the more sensitive members of the family including the little ones. The other kind of strange thing that helps us with chigger bites, no-see-um itches, and poison ivy (after the washing is done ) is smearing the affected area with mint gel toothpaste after wiping (changing tissues or cotton balls frequently) with witch hazel.
    Unfortunately, we’ve had a lot of experience with poison ivy since two of our family are very sensitive to it. We no longer have dogs so don’t get it nearly as often.
    I feel sorry for Granny. We also know people who can come down with it if someone upwind is burning a brushpile with poison ivy in it. We keep liquid benadryl (diphenhydramine) on hand at all times.

  • Reply
    July 7, 2017 at 6:51 pm

    I’ve been hospitalized with poison ivy at least one time while I was in the military. I can’t remember if there have been more than once or not, but since then, I’ve been careful to shower thoroughly after working outdoors, and to use a soft brush with soap and water to exfoliate any skin that wasn’t covered at the time.
    Now when I get some, I use an OTC medication named Rhuli Gel. It’s one of the best things for poison ivy/poison oak that I’ve every used, and it’s great on fire ant bites too.
    Prayers everyone has a great weekend, and a safe one too.
    God bless.

  • Reply
    July 7, 2017 at 2:51 pm

    When my brother was a teenager, he cut grass and did yard work for an elderly woman. He rounded up a pile of weeds, brush, etc. and burned them, and he got poison oak from the smoke. I don’t think he knew what it looked like in the first place, and he was wearing work gloves. The doctor told my mom to get some solution of gentian violet. Well, it worked, but as the stuff is purple, he had purple patches all over, and there were even purple spots on the bedsheets! Needless to say, I don’t think he burned any weeds or brush again! I’ve always heard, “Leaves of three, let it be.”

  • Reply
    Jack Yates
    July 7, 2017 at 1:12 pm

    I burnt a pile of brush once that had poison ivy in it and the next day it was all over me, blisters the size of quarters and itchy-scratchy everywhere. The doctor didn’t know what it was but a friend recognized it, and I think I bought out the whole local supply of Calamine lotion to treat it.. The experience seems to have had a happy ending though; I’ve never had a poison ivy outbreak since that day, about a half-century past…

  • Reply
    July 7, 2017 at 12:53 pm

    Jewelweed is to poison oak, like a Dog is to a cat, it’ll run it off.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    July 7, 2017 at 12:05 pm

    My friend Beanie wasn’t allergic to poison ivy. He used to pull it and rub it all over his skin then laugh at the rest of us who had to stay away from that nasty stuff. He even ate it sometimes. Then one day! There was a big patch of it at Hightower Church around the back and down over the bank. We were back there playing and somebody yelled “There is some Poison Oak, stay away from it!” Beanie couldn’t resist the urge to show off a little. He pulled some off the wall, rubbed it between his hands and then on his face and around his eyes. We were all impressed, of course. Somebody suggested he roll around in it which he gladly did.
    It seems an allergy can come on suddenly as you get older. One day you can be perfectly fine and the next you are eat up. Beanie had a revelation at church that day. His armor had been pierced. His shield had been broken. His charm had worn away. His vulnerability was completely exposed.
    Beanie spent the next two weeks inside. We asked his mother if he could come outside to play. “He can’t. He can’t even put on his clothes.” Even when he was able to come out, we were warned not to touch him. He had weeping blisters all over him. We were told that if we touched him, we would get what he had.
    Beanie didn’t go to a doctor. Back then doctors were mostly for autopsies and signing death certificates. He wasn’t near death so he was left to suffer and recover at home alone. Beanie’s life lesson lasted all summer and well up into the fall. He was still scratching on the school bus. Just thinking about it makes me want to scratch now, fifty some years later.

  • Reply
    wanda Devers
    July 7, 2017 at 12:04 pm

    My nephew gets it horribly. I’ve seen his toes forced apart by the huge blisters. We called it all poison oak, too.

  • Reply
    July 7, 2017 at 10:17 am

    About the only place poison oak bothered me was between my fingers, but you’re right, it’ll drive you nuts. They say if you’ll take a good bath after being exposed to weeds, it won’t bother you, but I never did that either.
    When you write stories about life in your family, I just love it. Appalachia is my Home…Ken

  • Reply
    Larry Proffitt
    July 7, 2017 at 9:05 am

    Tipper , In my 46 years as a pharmacist I have seen lots of poison ivy patients. I saw many when folks
    “burned tobacco beds” . Many children , and many with big stripes of poison ivy where they had cut through the plant with a weed eater . The active allergen in the plant is an oily substance. Washing the area with soap only spreads the oil . Washing with dishwashing detergent or other detergents washes the oil off thus reducing the spread and perhaps severity of the reaction. Once upon a time 40 years ago we were camping on Watauga Lake in Tennessee . I told my 2 girls , Now stay away from this big patch of poison and showed them the shiny 3 leafed plants. Norma cooked us a mess of fish we had caught. In cleaning the skillet she went to dump the oil and the girls followed . I shouted how did you get there. My little one about 5 yrs old then shouts ” right through here daddy” .She knew . I loaded everybody in the boat and back to the dock. My friend at the dock had some liquid Tide . We got them in the edge of the lake and Norma washed their legs and arms with tide water . Amazing . We all are very sensitive to poison ivy / poison oak . We were fortunate that none of the three were affected by the poison. Early treatment at the doctor’s office for very involved cases prevents complications such as infection from sites wherein the patient has broken the skin from scratching. Larry Proffitt

  • Reply
    July 7, 2017 at 8:58 am

    My friend had never been allergic to poison oak until she was 40 years old and decided to clean out a fence line. I wouldn’t have recognized her on the street with her face twice it’s size and her eyes swollen shut. The ER ended up cutting her wedding ring off. I’ve always bragged that poison oak doesn’t bother me, but I’m quick to remember how my friend used to make the same statement.
    A guy down the road was helping his dad burn brush and became ill a few days later. He was diagnosed with poison ivy in his lungs! He had breathed burning poison ivy that was in the burn pile. He became so sick that one lung had to be removed. Now that’s scary!

  • Reply
    George Pettie
    July 7, 2017 at 8:52 am

    I was lucky to have no sensitivity to poison oak/poison ivy–so one of my teenage tasks was to pull those malevolent vines from the old apple trees. I hope my immunity never comes to a screeching halt.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    July 7, 2017 at 8:47 am

    I’m sorry you all are troubled by poison ivy. I am not going to say I’m immune but I have escaped with not having to pay much attention to it. I think being around it burning is probably the worse way to get it.
    It may be that immunity is eroded by repeated exposure. That happened to my Dad with bee stings. He kept bees for years and was stung repeatedly with little effect until one day when he was mowing, bumped a hive and got stung. He had to go to the doctor that time and was told his resistance had run out and he would ever after be in danger. He had to give up his bees. That is why I am not bold around poison ivy. As the old saying has it, ‘prudence is the better part of valor.’

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    July 7, 2017 at 8:17 am

    I’m like Granny, I can walk by Poison Oak and I think it jumps on me, several years ago I was cutting firewood and failed to look at the backside of a tree and my saw kicked the saw dust from a large vine back on my wrist. This scarred up and it took several years to heal. I had a Great Uncle who was burning brush which had Poison Oak on it and he breathed the smoke, his Bronchial Tubes swelled so badly he had to be hospitalized. In my opinion this stuff is a curse.

  • Reply
    Vernon Kimsey
    July 7, 2017 at 7:56 am

    I have gotten poison ivy and oak often during my teen years roaming the woods. I once had a case of poison sumac and that made the ivy/oak seem like child’s play. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to be as common as the oak/ivy.

  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    July 7, 2017 at 7:45 am

    I have never been especially sensitive to poison ivy, oak or sumac…I only remember getting a few patches on the inside of my arm one time when I was younger…We scrubbed the area and coated it wih calamine lotion.
    We are infested with poison ivy and seems to be more this year than I have ever seen…Big old three leaves climbing in and up thru most of my azalea shrubs…
    I had a friend that got poison oak/ivy, we assumed it was ivy from sitting around a campfire at church camp. Logs were being burned that had old clinging vines stuck to them. However, no one realized it at the time. There were no leaves as the logs and ivy were dried up in the early Fall…She would move but the smoke would follow here. She complained right away about her eyes itching. We would move when the smoke blew our way… By morning her eyes were swollen near shut and her cheeks were popped out in blisters…They ended up calling her parents to camp and they took her to the emergency room…She knew she was highly allergic to poison ivy and wouldn’t set a toe in any woodland and protected herself constantly against the ivy…No one else got this reaction to the smoke or broke out In a rash either…Not the first time the doctor told her parents that he had seen poison oak sensitive people get it near or in their eyes….very dangerous.
    Our remedy was always…wash the area off (oils from the leaves) put on calamine lotion….and do not scratch or it will spread if it has watery blisters by the time you feel it!
    Itchy post today…Thanks Tipper

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    July 7, 2017 at 5:44 am

    I had a few cases of Poison Ivy as a kid but nothing serious enough to require medical treatment, usually just calamine lotion till it dried up. Some folks seem to be more susceptible to it and I just wasn’t one of those people.
    As I’ve been working out in the yard and clearing the creek bank I’ve seen some Poison Ivy/Oak but I always have on gloves and long sleeves so I don’t worry about it.
    If I did get it now I’d probably put a drop of super glue on it, that’s what I do for mosquito bites. The glue seals the bite and without air the itching stops pretty quickly.

  • Leave a Reply