Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Urushiol and Me: The Poison Ivy Story

We all take things for granted. One thing I used to take for granted was an immunity to poison ivy. It is hard to realize how taken for granted something is until it is taken away. A couple of weeks ago I seemed to have brushed up against some poison ivy. I never knew it and when itchy dots began appearing I spent the first two days treating them as mosquito bites. When it became a rash I realized it was my very first reaction to poison ivy and I did what all afflicted 30-somethings do in this day and age—I consulted the internet. There are many, many poison ivy experts out there willing to offer their online guidance and support. I have entered into a subgroup of American culture—the poison ivy afflicted (let’s call them “PIA”). For every one PIA there are at least five uniquely-discovered remedies to treat poison ivy. Each PIA will start his/her remedy with the disclosure, “man, I didn’t think it would actually work, but I tried it and the poison ivy was cleared up in three days.” They suggest everything from traditional over-the-counter lotions, sprays, gels and creams to common items found in your kitchen or bathroom cabinet. I present here a very brief sampling: vinegar, rubbing alcohol, ammonia, Windex (thanks to “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding”), anti-acne astringent, orange cleaning agents, fresh lemon, ice…)

I started with Cortaid lotion which did nothing…except make my legs a little greasy, which enhanced the look of my tan, so I wouldn’t say it did “nothing” but that it did nothing to change the rash’s look or feel. Then I went to calamine lotion. So much for enhancing my tan, because suddenly my legs were a pasty Pepto-Bismol pink color. How’s that for sexy? Sexier is when the leg started to swell up twice its normal size. This prompted my five-year-old nephew to affectionately speak of my “normal” leg as my “little leg.” As in, “hey your little leg has a rash too.” I went awhile with pink and it kind of helped but I still was up all night reapplying (by the way, the claim that it lasts 8-9 hours is a load of crap—my experience was 2-3 hours of relief at most). Meanwhile in all this I am taking an oral over-the-counter anti-allergy pill, a pain reliever and when things were really bad, shots of tequila…okay maybe not the tequila, but the thought crossed my mind. Next I tried the lemon. No help, except a little burning which was a nice distraction from the incessant itching. Then I tried rubbing alcohol which helped a bit but left my skin so dry it felt like it was going to crack if I bent my knee. Meanwhile I’m reading online that until you get rid of all the urushiol (the poison ivy oil) from your furniture, bedding, clothing, etc. that you are basically re-infecting yourself over and over again and since new rashes were appearing, I decided I needed to enter into the suggested regimen of cleaning my clothing and bedding daily and thoroughly disinfecting my apartment (thank God I chose the studio apartment instead of the one-bedroom). I also began bathing myself with dish soap because I read online that dish soap is designed to cut oil and grease which is precisely what I am trying to get rid of. Surely the women at the Clarins counter would panic if they new that that I had interrupted my daily facial routine of their Gel Nettoyant Purifiant pour Peaux Grasses to rigorously scrub with ultra-concentrated, lemon-scented Joy. After about six days, the swelling and itching were so bothersome that I did what my medications had instructed me to do after 7 days of not getting better—I consulted a physician. I was giddy at the thought of what the doctor might be able to do for me because I had read online about the most magical and wonderful of all the remedies, the mother of all anti-itch remedies: the Cortisone Shot. In the 15 minutes or so it took them to order and administer the shot, I imagined the sheer bliss that was just around the corner. A quick shot in the ass and then suddenly all these nagging itches would be gone forever and I could focus simply on the act of healing... Hah! The thing never even softened the itch and the only effect I felt was a slight ache in my back end. Going to the doctor was a good thing though because I learned that I also had an infection in my leg (later both legs) likely caused by itching the oil deeper into my skin. This is the reason my leg was swollen and burning and hurting. The term is cellulitis and I give it special mention here because apparently it can get quite serious. So I got a shot of antibiotic and oral antibiotics.

As the days went on I continued to clean every day, took the medications, continued to try other over-the-counter itch remedies (Benadryl—three different kinds, Aveeno oatmeal bath, some of the aforementioned household products). Finally the only thing to offer relief, the best anti-itch so far—the hairdryer! Put it on high, point it directly at the itch and leave it there until right before it burns. Pull it away and the itch is gone. It even feels kinda nice while the heat is on it. It was the best on-line gem I found. Ice also helped to numb the area and prevent itching, although the effect isn’t as long.

So I was getting itch relief but new rashes were appearing constantly, the swelling was increasing and I hadn’t seen my right ankle in days. The idea of this re-infecting urushiol in my apartment was maddening. I lived my life as though I shared my apartment with a roommate with a very nasty infectious disease that is spread by contact. I cleaned everything. Every day. The cleaning regimen was exhausting but I kept it up with the hopes that I would rid the apartment and me of that nasty urushiol infectant. On the bright side, I was beginning to get many nice compliments on my lemon fresh skin.

I returned to the doctor for my follow-up appointment only to find out that this oral antibiotic that I was taking religiously four times a day was causing in me an allergic reaction. So it wasn’t the urushiol afterall, but these pills that were making me worse. I am now trying to commit the name of this drug to memory so that when some medical professional asks, “are you allergic to any medications?” I can inform them of this one. Meanwhile I am taken an anti-inflamatory that makes me hyper—so I am still cleaning my apartment every day, but only because I can’t quite settle down yet. The rashes are slowly healing and the swelling is now gone. The infection seems to be fading. No new rashes or infections anyway.

As a newly-inducted PIA, I feel obligated to add to the online list of advice. Sadly I have nothing original to offer, mostly because I kept trying everyone else’s ideas and partly because I have no interest in smearing cleaning supplies or kitchen condiments to my oozing, itchy rash, especially when there is no one before me who will step forward and say that “yes, indeed a dab of relish (dill, of course) will clear up that rash in no time.” If I were going to be experimental though I’d try a bottle of Cabernet or maybe some grape juice. I’m not sure why. Just an instinct.

My two cents:

Think oil. Oil is hard to clean up (esp. when you can’t see it!) but there are products out there to help you like dish detergent. So don’t think ivory clean—think Dawn, Palmolive, Joy, etc.

The hairdryer is your friend. Use it. You deserve it.

Bad is bad. Go to the doctor BEFORE your leg swells up like a balloon, or burns, or hurts inside.

Never, ever, ever touch poison ivy or anything that has been in contact with poison ivy…even if you are “immune.”