Pros: Best OTC anti-itch product we've tried for treating itchiness of poison oak
Cons: Not as effective as prescription cortisone cream. Strong smell.
Back when we were still living in California, my husband came down with a nasty case of poison oak. We at first thought it might be hives, caused by something he ate. After a time, as the intensity of the itch increased and the rash became more visible, we figured it must be poison oak. He had been to a work party several days earlier and had carried some lumber that must have had poison oak oil on it.
My husband was reluctant to see a doctor. He'd had poison oak 15 years earlier and the doctor then had told him nothing could be done. At first we tried treating the itch with over-the-counter products: Benadryl (an oral antihistamine), Maximum Strength Hydrocortisone Cream (1% solution), Gold Bond Medicated Cream, BandAid Calamine Spray and Aveeno Anti-Itch Lotion with natural colloidal oatmeal.
The Gold Bond was his favorite. It reduced the itching from unbearable to almost tolerable. He said the Aveeno provided a similar amount of relief, but he preferred the slight tingle and smell of the Gold Bond. Plus, it comes in a tube, which fit in the pocket of his jeans a little easier than the Aveeno container. The hydrocortisone cream didn't seem to do anything. BandAid's Calamine Spray was a very good way of applying calamine lotion evenly and painting his skin pink, but the spray got every where and after it dried, the pink powder came off on everything he touched. He also said it didn't help with the itch as much as the Gold Bond and Aveeno.
After a few more days of suffering (the itch was so intense he couldn't go to work and he had trouble sleeping), he went to see a doctor, who prescribed some prescription-strength cortisone cream. We'd had the right idea, but apparently over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams are too weak to do any good. The doctor also suggested taking an antihistamine like Benadryl, further reinforcing the idea that we'd been on the right track.
The prescription cream was by far the most soothing thing for his rash. Cortisone is a powerful steroid, so he was careful to use it according to directions. Unfortunately, the itch came back long before it was time to apply another dose of the prescription cream, so he supplemented it with the Gold Bond cream. He used Gold Bond more often than the directions recommend, but judging by its ingredients we (and the pharmacists we consulted) couldn't see any reason not to use it as often as he needed.
Other Treatments for the Poison Oak Itch
Some people find relief in cool showers, ice packs or oatmeal baths. On the advice of a friend, my husband found that VERY HOT showers worked best for him. The doctor said it was because the heat caused the pores to open and release their histamine which was rinsed away, providing temporary relief until the skin built up a new supply of histamine. (Histamine is a chemical produced by the body that causes the itching, swelling, etc.).
It is important to try not to scratch, as the act of scratching irritates the skin further and makes it even itchier. Plus, scratching can damage the skin and tear open the blisters, increasing the likelihood of scarring and infection. Of course, it's easy to say "don't scratch" when you're NOT the person with the itch.
Doctors recommend trimming the fingernails of children suffering from poison oak.
There are two other products that we should have tried, but we didn't know about them at the time. If we had used them, we probably wouldn't have needed to see a doctor:
Tecnu is a solution that breaks down urushiol (the irritating oil in Poison Oak). If you get poison oak on your skin, apply this solution to the site then rinse it off. It removes the urushiol. You can even use it after the rash has appeared. People also use it to wipe down gear that's been exposed to poison oak. You CAN also add a bit to a load of laundry, but I assume that regular laundry detergent and hot water is good enough. (Nagels has a nice review on how this product provided complete, immediate relief from poison ivy, even though he applied it after the rash broke out and it should have been too late for the Tecnu to make a difference).
Marie's Original Poison Oak Soap is a bar soap with chemicals that can break down urushiol. It also has emolients that are supposed to soothe irritated skin and help it to heal faster. We've never tried it, but the Oregon Firefighters supposedly buy this by the case.
Avoid old bottles of anti-itch products you might have lying around that contain "diphenhydramine." Applying diphenhydramine to open sores and taking diphenhydramine by mouth can cause a build-up of the drug leading to toxic symptoms. Use it only on the advice of a doctor.
Some Facts About Poison Oak
The poison oak rash is an allergic reaction to the urushiol oil that is found in poison oak, poison ivy and poison sumac. People usually don't react to their first exposure, but they do on the second or subsequent exposures. People don't have to touch the plant to get exposed--touching ANYTHING with the urushiol oil on it is enough.
A rash can break out in a few hours or after several days. How long it takes depends on how tough the skin is and how much oil it is exposed to. Even if several parts of you were exposed at the same time, rash on one part of your body might show up days after it does in another part. The fact that the rash can appear in some areas later than others causes many people (even professionals) to think that the rash is spreading and that the rash itself is contagious. This is false. The only way to get the rash is by contact with the urushiol oil. If the rash really is spreading, then there is probably urushiol oil on something and that oil is unintentionally being spread around. (E.g. if some oil is caught under the fingernails, the victim could spread it by scratching.)
If the plant is burned, the oil becomes airborne, irritating eyes, nose, skin and lungs. Inhaling poison oak can be life threatening and requires immediate medical attention. (Next time you see a firefighter, REALLY thank them, these guys suffer through a lot.)
Pets can get the oil on their fur and bring it home.
Shredding or composting poison oak is also NOT a good idea.
Minimizing Contact with Poison Oak
If you are walking through an area with poison oak, it's a good idea to wear long pants and long sleeves. Afterwards, SHOWER (do NOT sit in a bath) with lots of soap and lots of hot/warm water. Be sure to wash your clothing in hot, sudsy water and clean off any gear you used with Tecnu or some grease-cutting detergent like Dawn. The oil is sticky and doesn't dry out. It can cause a rash even after months (or some victims say years), so be careful where you put your gear/clothing before you clean them off. If you are sure your clothing had a lot of poison oak oil in it, experts recommend running the washing machine an extra time (after you've removed the washed clothing), so you can be sure to rinse the urushiol out of the washing machine.
The oil can also be removed with rubbing alchohol.
A good way to avoid it is to learn what the plant looks like, but bear in mind that there are several varieties. They look different AND the plant can lose its leaves in the fall, making it harder to spot.
Guys--if you think you might have some poison oak on your hands, wash them REALLY well BEFORE going to the bathroom. There are some places you really do not want to get the rash.
If a friend or family member is suffering from poison oak--DON'T LAUGH--next time it could be you.
For More Information
on Poison Ivy/Oak/Sumac
on pictures/identifying poison oak plants:
Yellow jackets are another hazard of being outdoors. If you'd like to learn how to handle them, pls read my review on Everything you might want to know about Yellow Jackets.
If you are interested in reading any of my other health-related reviews, pls go to:
Lower Your Blood Pressure--Without Drugs
Preventing Colds with Airborne
Cure Pinkeye with Naphcon A
Sinus Survival Program Offers Help to Allergy Sufferers at the End of their Rope
I hope this helps someone.