Aaah.. Poison Ivy. No, scratch that – I mean OW! Poison Ivy! Spoiling camping trips and nature hikes since the dawn of Man. And sleep. There is nothing worse than trying to sleep while dealing with the itchiness that poison ivy brings.
Growing up in the rural midwest, this tiny, three-leafed plant is one of the first things us kids were taught to look out for when venturing into the woods. Of course, this was as much for our sake as it was for our parents’, as a gaggle of itchy, screaming kids is a sure-fire way to put a damper on a relaxing weekend “up north.”
However, as nature lovers know, spend enough time in the woods and you’re bound to come into contact with Poison Ivy, Poison Oak or Sumac at some point. And because avoidance of these plants is virtually impossible, this article will focus on how to best treat exposure to Poison Ivy rather than prevent it, with particular focus on treating itchiness at nighttime.
But first, let’s take a look at how Toxicodendron Radicans, the latin name for poison ivy, actually makes us itch.
How does Poison Ivy work?
Poison Ivy is a flowering plant unassuming in appearance, yet easily identifiable for its distinctive three-leafed arrangement (“leaflets three, let it be.”) The leaves’ surface contain an oil called Urushiol that, when applied to the skin (or via secondary means such as hiking boots/clothing or an outside dog), incites an allergic reaction that creates a swollen, itchy rash at the site of contact.
Symptoms generally present themselves within a day or two following exposure, and typically last about a week. In serious cases, however, symptoms can last up to a month, and in rare cases, may require hospitalization.
Fortunately, for most of us, treatment options need extend no further than do-it-yourself remedies or over-the-counter medication.
How to relive the itchiness to sleep at night!
Below are some of the most effective methods of treating exposure that you can use to eliminate itchy irritation throughout the day and before bed:
1. Rinse and soak!
Because Poison Ivy’s itchiness is caused by an application of oil to the skin, topical rinses that diffuse and disrupt the oil are an extremely effective means of curbing irritation when used immediately following contact with the plant.
Following a rinse, it’s best to soothe and moisturize the skin as it will be particularly sensitive during the onset of swelling.
Here’s how to do it:
Take soapy showers and oatmeal baths in the evening
The first thing you should do immediately following exposure to Poison Ivy is dilute and rinse the Urushiol Oil from your skin with soap and water. However, because the oil can get under your fingernails, in your hair, etc., it’s best just to lather and rinse your entire body lest you risk spreading the oil further.
After a good rinse, it’s good to sooth the skin with an oatmeal bath. Not only is oatmeal an excellent soothing agent for itchy, inflamed skin, but it also aids in restoring moisture and minerals to the epidermis.
Aveeno sells a variety of oatmeal bath solutions for about $5, but you can also make your own solution in just a few minutes:
Recipe for oatmeal bath:
- Fill a breathable container such as a coffee filter or pantyhose with ¾ cup of oatmeal.
- Run the bathtub with warm water.
- When the tub is halfway full, begin soaking the coffee filter solution at the far end of the tub. If you’re using pantyhose or any other material that can be tied-off, simply drop the container in the tub and let it float around.
- Dry and reuse the oat container as needed. ¾ cup of oats is generally good for 2-3 uses.
2. It Puts The Lotion On The Skin… Before Bed
Resisting the urge to itch can be difficult, especially when you’re lying in bed with nothing else to occupy your mind. Applying an anti-itch lotion in the evening can mean the difference between a healthy night’s sleep and painful, frustrating insomnia.
Here are 5 of the best before-bed lotions for treating Poison Ivy itch:
1. Calamine Lotion
Technically speaking, Calamine Lotion is a mixture of various zinc and ferric oxide compounds. And while scientists aren’t exactly sure how these agents work, what is known is that Calamine Lotion is unbelievably effective in not only treating the effects of Poison Ivy, but also in relieving pain and itching due to Poison Oak and Poison Sumac as well as other outdoor-related skin irritants such as bug bites and sunburn.
Furthermore, the zinc oxide present in Calamine lotion also helps to ward off bacterial infection, which can occur if your rash is scratched to the point of becoming an open wound.
2. Gold Bond Medicated Anti-Itch Lotion
As the name implies, this lotion is designed with the intent purpose of alleviating itchiness. An added bonus of this lotion is that it contains aloe as well as Vitamins E and B5 to help repair and moisturize your skin.
For serious symptoms, Gold Bond also makes a cream called Medicated Rapid Relief Anti-Itch Cream, with twice the amount of active ingredients. This is useful for those with particularly sensitive skin who react with more severity to Poison Ivy than the average joe.
3. Bach Rescue Remedy Cream
This cream uses 6 natural flower extracts to cleanse and sooth the skin. The main benefit of this cream is that its soothing effects seem to last longer than the average cream, making it especially valuable in treating nighttime itchiness. It’s also more natural and holistic in its ingredients than the chemically-centered Calamine or Gold Bond lotions.
4. Baking Soda Paste
Whether added to bathwater or made into a paste, Baking Soda is an exceptional anti-itch compound. Not only does it last throughout the night, but its ubiquity in nearly every kitchen makes this household ingredient perfect for emergency relief.
For use as a bath solution: mix ½ cup per tub of warm bathwater.
For use as a topical paste: mix 3 tsp with 1 tsp of water and stir until firm.
Note: Some find that adding a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar to a Baking Soda paste helps pull residual Urushiol Oil from the skin’s pores.
5. Aloe Vera
The great thing about the Aloe Vera plant is that using it to treat skin irritation requires no more preparation than simply breaking off one of its leaves and rubbing the juice directly onto your skin. However, if you don’t grow Aloe Vera, you can also buy the extract at your local grocery or nutrition shop.While the gel/extract is more expensive than growing your own plant (between $10-20 for a 12 oz bottle), the purified gel extract is more potent than its leafy counterpart.
3. Lower the temperature and increase airflow in your bedroom
Sweat is a major instigator of irritation, and the worst thing you can do for a rash is to create a closed, sweaty environment in which there is little breathability. Given the fact that Poison Ivy exposure peaks during hot summer months, you’ll need to work extra hard to keep your rash free of sweat.
Here are some quick and easy ways to stay sweat-free during the night:
Swap out your sheets
Cotton, linen, and bamboo are your best bet for both materials of maximum comfort and breathability. Not only are they soft and permeable, they’re also gentle on the skin unlike the heavy, fibrous material of wool or nylon.
Note: be sure to shower and thoroughly clean the site of Poison Ivy exposure before going to bed. If there is still Urushiol Oil on your skin when you go to bed, the oil can be transmitted onto your sheets and then spread over other parts of your body.
Bring on the cold
Whether by opening the windows, turning on the air conditioning, or simply cranking up your fan, your goal is to minimize sweating by keeping the area around your rash cool.
In addition to upping your bedroom airflow, another effective treatment option is to lay a damp, cotton wash cloth in the freezer, and after a few hours, apply it to the skin for 15-30 minutes. Cold compresses and ice packs are excellent for reducing itching and swelling.
4. Know when to call the professionals
Reactions to Poison Ivy follow somewhat of a bell-curve pattern, with the vast majority of those exposed suffering only mild to moderate symptoms, and with 15% not experiencing any symptoms at all.
However, at the other end of the spectrum, and in contrast to the lucky immune, lie the particularly sensitive, for which do-it-yourself remedies and over-the-counter medicine might not be enough.
In some of these cases, professional medical attention is necessary for exposure to Poison Ivy, and it’s important to recognize the difference between common symptoms and a potentially dangerous reaction.
Schedule an appointment with your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms:
Infected, unbearably itchy skin
If you’ve scratched your skin raw to the point of a festering, open wound, then applying topical lotions/medications will no longer help, and could actually do more harm than good. Depending on the severity of your rash, you may need prescription antibiotics or an anti-inflammatory steroid such as Prednisone.
If you’ve inhaled Urushiol Oil dust, or smoke from a burning Poison Ivy plant
Urushiol Oil is still active when burned, and its fumes can cause a serious allergic reaction in your lungs when inhaled. Though rare, inhaling Urushiol Oil does happen in cases such as brush fires, or accidentally running over a patch of Poison Ivy with the lawnmower.
If you suspect that you’ve inhaled Poison Ivy, then you should seek medical treatment immediately.
If the rash is spreading at an uncontrollable rate, causing shortness of breath, or any other severe adverse symptoms
If you’re experiencing any of the above, seek medical treatment. Poison Ivy should not cause any hugely debilitating, life-altering effects other than some general irritation.
As a rule of thumb, when in doubt, call the doc.
Got a tip for quelling Poison Ivy itch during the night? Share it in the comments section below!