I suppose I need to include the generic “Don’t do this at home” statement or some idiot will claim—while being wheeled into the hospital—that he/she saw sulphuric acid or some such remedy recommended in my book.

Various folk remedies for the itch started popping up soon after the colonists hit the coast in the early 1600s. Native Americans used local plants, and herbalists were coming up with suggestions. By the late 1700s not much progress was made by the medical profession—although they were giving it their best shot.

One of the first substances used by physicians as serious medical treatment of poison ivy dermatitis was mercuric chloride (highly poisonous), with the hope that “by its corrosive action on the skin, the poison would be thrown off the affected area.” In the 1920s, many of these same chemicals were still being used. My hair is standing on end as I write.

Shortly after exposure, to prevent penetration of the “poison” into the skin, strong solvents were encouraged: ether, chloroform, toluene (severe brain damage from inhaling, death), turpentine (ditto), benzene (ditto) and glacial acetic acid (corrosive).

In 1863, physician Francis Porcher, in all seriousness, wrote that a good accepted remedy was cold applications of acetate of lead. Bloodletting was an option, and opium was mentioned. I can visualize his patients: a group of pale opium addicts dying of lead poisoning wandering the streets at night.

In 1887, James Clark White’s suggestions, lacking the “on-the- edge” qualities of Porcher’s remedies, were downright dull in comparison. He suggested weak alkaline lotions, carbonate of soda, evaporating lotions of warm or cold water and alcohol, providing the last would “not be too stimulating.” Nonetheless,


Upon arriving home, dump your clothing and your dog in the washing machine first thing. Actually, if you just wipe your dog with a cloth soaked with alcohol, he/she won’t kick up as much of a fuss. If, heaven forbid, you take a shower first, and emerge sparkling clean, pull on disposable vinyl (not latex) gloves before dealing with your clothes. Every household should have a box of gloves. Lacking these, use chopsticks to move your clothing if you have to, but do not touch the fabric.

Let’s say you think your shirt is contaminated and it’s a pullover. While tugging it over your head, your face and hair will be smeared with allergenic oil. The answer is simple. Put another shirt on over the one you’re wearing. Pull the two off together and slam dunk both into the washing machine.

Hot water and lots of strong laundry detergent is recommended. Heat breaks up oil molecules, assisting soap to emulsify them. I like to add limonene, a nontoxic, powerful oil remover made from pressing orange peels. Natural foods stores carry these products diluted as household cleansers, but I bought the pure stuff online and now add a splash in my washing machine.

Albert Kligman, a tireless researcher in the 1950s, conducted a few experiments with clothing he rubbed with poison ivy leaves. One important conclusion was “Sap [actually resin] contaminated clothing was rendered harmless after washing in an automatic laundering machine using commercial detergent.”

Dr. Kligman did a little experimenting to see how the oil reacted under different humidities and temperatures. He placed contaminated clothing in a thirty-seven degree environment with one hundred percent humidity. Within three to five days, the allergenic oil had oxidized and was no longer allergenic.


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Have some questions? Waiting with bated breath for clear, concise, condensed, cleanly packaged answers? Sorry. But you can still ask.

Is it possible to lose or lessen the allergy—to become desensi- tized? No. Yes. Maybe. Sometimes. Temporarily. It depends.

How long will it take? Two weeks. Six months. One year. Who knows? It depends.

How long will the desensitivity last? Three weeks. All summer. Two years. Forever. It depends.

Researchers have been flummoxed for quite awhile about the above questions.

Biologist David Senchina summed up progress in 2006. “Hy- posensitization programs in humans have been for the most part disappointing...Still, these studies demonstrate hypo-sensitization is possible, repeatable, and potentially effectual under the right circumstances.”1

I will summarize the long search for a product to desensitize folks who are allergic to poison oak and poison ivy.

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