Your hiking companion didn’t know better when he joined you for a 3-day backpacking trip in the Appalachians. The trails traverse through dense mountainous woodlands and open pastoral landscapes.
The hiking looks easy, but it never is. The hiking here is rugged, with the constant ascents and descents, climbing over and under fallen trees, meandering around leafy plants and thorny bushes. Then there is the hopping across streams on slimy, algae covered rocks, and trying to avoid tripping on the exposed tree roots.
At the intersection of the trail, an old splintered wooden trail post is mounted into the dirt. It marks the trail name and distance. Your friend is tired and sits down to rest his back against the post. He marvels at the lush ivy plant growing along that spot, brushing his fingers across the soft green foliage. He then pulls his hand away to clear off the sweat running down his face. Boy, it’s a hot day!
As you approach, you mention all the poison ivy where he is sitting.
In just a short time your friend’s hand and face will likely be covered in a nasty rash caused by the poison ivy.
What can you do for him? You have no pharmaceuticals in your first aid kit to treat it. And none of the classic anti-itch remedies such as baking soda, calamine lotion, or hydrocortisone. You’d be cruel to let him suffer for the rest of the trip.
What should you do?
How to Treat Poison Ivy when Backpacking
The urushiol oil, a clear liquid compound found in the sap of poison ivy, is what produces an itchy rash in most people who touch it. According to the American Academy of Dermatology about 85% of people are allergic to the resin [ref]. Because the urushiol oil is soluble in soap, the best defense is to wash your skin with soap and water immediately after contact with the plant. Sometimes that is not possible on the trail. You might not have enough water available when it happens. Fortunately, as you’ll find out here, there are other options you can use to prevent a rash. These apply to all the common poisonous plants, including poison ivy, poison oak, poisonwood, and poison sumac.
- First, wash the exposed skin with cold water within 10 minutes of exposure. It is important that you dilute the urushiol oil as soon as possible. If you have soap with you, use it. Not all backpackers carry biodegradable soap. In that case, just rinse with cold water. Although urushiol is not soluble in water, rinsing the skin in plain water is better than doing nothing at all. If you can’t find a nearby spring, rinse with the treated drinking water you have. Do not wash off the oil with your washcloth/bandana; otherwise you might spread the oil to other parts of your body.
- Do not rinse your skin with warm or hot water! It is not like you have a hot tap at your disposal in the wilderness, so it seems a little odd to say this; however, one can never assume. You might be hiking in an area with hot springs, or just finished treating your water by boiling it. If so, don’t use that water. Hot water opens the pores and enhances the penetration of the oil into the skin.
- Wash anything else that came into contact with the plant, such as your clothing, dog, shoes and laces. If you can’t wash clothing or gear with soap while on the trail, do so when you get into town. Washing with soap is important because the urushiol oil remains active outside the plant and is not soluble in water alone. Otherwise the oil will continue to produce a rash for up to 5 years.
- If you don’t have water, but carry alcohol-based hand sanitizer or alcohol wipes, clean the area with that. Smear it directly on the skin. Note: some sources say that the alcohol will help dissolve the oil from the skin while other sources say it accelerates the penetration of the poison into the skin. The latter doesn’t make sense to me. Alcohol is a solvent and dries out the skin, thus retracts the pores. So, in theory, alcohol should work.
Getting relief from Poison Ivy Rash
Sometimes you don’t realize you’ve touched a poisonous plant until you develop a nasty rash. In that case, you will need to find relief from the itching. There is no reason that a poison ivy rash should ruin your backpacking trip, or force you to backtrack into the nearest town for first-aid. Here are a few things you can use in the wilderness to alleviate the discomfort.
- Many long-distance backpackers carry Emergen-C tablets for nutritional support. If you are one of them, you are in luck. Emergen-C is full of Vitamin C (ascorbic acid), and when applied topically to the skin, it provides relief. You can apply the Vitamin C in several ways. One is to crush the vitamin C powder / emergen-C tablet and add a small amount of water to make a paste. Another is to wet the exposed area of the skin and rub the tablet over it. A third option is to take it as it was designed (orally). Vitamin C helps with the histamine response. Any ordinary antihistamine tablet (such as Benadryl) will also help with the inflammation and itching. Take 2x daily, or as directed.
- If you get blisters, one of the best simple methods to temporarily stop the itching is to pour hot water over the blisters. Boil a pot of water, let it cool a bit, and pour it directly over the blisters.
Find relief using common botanicals
The sap of these common flowering plants provides are beneficial for providing relief from the itching and inflammation caused by the poisonous plants containing the urushiol skin irritant. They also have a soothing effect on stinging nettles and insect bites, too!
Finding these plants will depend on where you are hiking
If hiking along the Western U.S., look for Grindelia (Grindelia robusta) or Gumweed. The common name “gumweed” is due to the fact that the yellow daisy-like petals contain a sticky resin. Squeeze the petals to get the resin and apply directly to the skin.
Grindelia is most commonly found growing in dry soils in California and Nevada.If hiking on Eastern U.S, look for Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) also known as Forget-me-nots, Impatiens & Snapweed. This common flowering plant is easily recognized by the trumpet shaped flowers that hang from the plant.
Cut open the stem and squeeze it to release the juice and rub it into the skin. Jewelweed grows in a similar climate with poison ivy, however that does not mean you’ll find it nearby. Jewelweed flourishes along creek beds in damp and shady areas, whereas poison ivy grows in sun or shade. Jewelweed is also most common along the east coast, from northern Florida to southern Canada, and blooms from May through October.
Vitamin C and histamine response: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1578094
Disputes the efficacy of jewelweed to prevent poison ivy rash; the mash is what works; the extract doesn’t: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22766473
Jewelweed remedy: http://www.altnature.com/jewelweed.htm