There may not yet be a perfect poison ivy treatment, but a variety of rinses, ointments and pills promise help. Here's a look at the better-known options for either protection or itch relief:
* IvyBlock A so-called barrier lotion, IvyBlock is the only product approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to help prevent poison ivy rash before exposure. Apply it 15 minutes before going outdoors and every four hours thereafter, and the product's clay-based active ingredient, bentoquatam, is supposed to help prevent the plant's infectious sap from penetrating the skin. Manufacturer EnviroDerm says the product works by attaching to the oil until it's washed off with soap and water. IvyBlock also has FDA approval as a treatment for reducing the severity of the rash. Cost: About $12 for four ounces.
* Tecnu Skin Cleanser Like Zanfel, it's a wash meant to be rubbed into affected skin, then rinsed off once it's bound with urushiol on the skin surface. The mineral spirits-based product is touted as effective if used within eight hours of exposure. Its waterless formulation and peculiar chemical smell lead me to believe it's better than soap for washing off the oil. It contains mineral spirits that may help wash away the oil, like a degreaser. Tec Labs, its maker, says it can also be used on clothing and tools. Cost: At about $1 an ounce, it's a bargain -- if it works for you. It doesn't help me.
* Ivy Stat A newer, pricier version of Tecnu, Ivy Stat is a two-step treatment made of a wash similar to Tecnu plus a hydrocortisone cream to soothe the itch. I'm not anxious to try it, since the original formulation failed my test. Cost: About $25 for 3 ounces.
* Benadryl An over-the-counter oral antihistamine, Benadryl blocks the action of histamine, a naturally occurring substance released by the body during an allergic reaction responsible for inflammation. Benadryl starts to work in 15 to 30 minutes and lasts four to six hours. Side effects include dry mouth and sedation. I don't mind the second part. At least I can get a good night's sleep.
* Calamine lotions Products include Caladryl ($7 for six ounces) and Ivarest ($6 for two ounces). Both promise relief from itching for up to eight hours at a time. That's an overstatement. The mild anesthetic relief doesn't last long and the lotions dry the skin, sometimes making it itch further.
* Burt's Bees Poison Ivy Soap This blend of jewelweed, clay and pine tar claims to wash away plant oils and help dry blisters.
* Ivy Dry A quick-drying, inexpensive liquid that contains zinc acetate and alcohol to relieve itching and oozing. For me, its drying effect is worse than the original itch.
* Steroids Over-the-counter topical hydrocortisone creams like Cortaid ($7 for two ounces) temporarily relieve itching by suppressing the immune system. Prednisone injections or pills may be used for severe widespread systemic inflammation. Prednisone reduces swelling but decreases the body's ability to fight infections. A shot once gave me a puffy face and made me even more irritable than I was without it.
* Oatmeal, baking soda or cornstarch baths Special baths, supposed to relieve itching by helping to dry out the blisters, may work for less severe cases. For me, they rarely do anything other than give me an excuse to soak in the tub.
* Dishwashing liquid Go ahead, laugh, but some swear that smearing the stuff on your bod before venturing out blocks urushiol from attaching to skin cells. It's a cheap alternative to IvyBlock -- if it works. I haven't tried it.
* Deodorants Some say products containing aluminum chlorohydrate may act as a barrier if sprayed liberally on arms and legs before going outside.
* Rubbing alcohol or witch hazel They're said to act as solvents to wash away urushiol. They both are drying agents.
* Jewelweed Some attribute curative powers to crushed leaves of this herb.
Know your ABCs -- Avoid, Block, Clean:
* Avoid your enemy by learning to recognize the offending plant. That can be tricky since plant habit and coloration vary.
* Block by wearing protective clothing -- think closed shoes and gloves -- when gardening or foraging in the woods. For susceptible people, that may also mean long pants and sleeves even when it's hot. Avoid touching your face or rubbing your eyes while working outdoors.
* Clean immediately after exposure. This instruction applies to anything that may have touched the plant -- tools, clothing, shoes, linens, pets. Wash with plenty of soap and cold running water for at least five minutes. Warm water spreads the oil into open pores.
-- Erika Ginsburg