[Excerpt of an article by Linda Fehrs, LMT for the Institute of Integrative Healthcare Studies]

‘Tis the season for gardening, hiking and the eventual summertime bout of poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac. It seems like a no-brainer for massage therapists when it comes to treating a client. The basic precaution of not touching the area of a visible rash does indeed apply. But should a massage therapist be cautious beyond the mere visible indications of some sort of contact dermatitis? And, if all precautions fail, how do you deal with that itchy rash?

As massage therapists, it’s important to be aware of both the causes and treatment of being exposed to poison ivy, as well as poison oak and poison sumac. If a client has it, should they get a massage? If the massage therapist has it should he or she give a massage? Can getting a massage spread, or otherwise affect the rash?

How Does a Person Get Poison Ivy?

There is basically one way to get poison ivy. (This applies to poison oak and poison sumac as well.) It’s to come in contact with the plant and ultimately have the plant oils get on the skin. Even if you don’t physically touch the plant with bare skin, it may be that your pet, or some item of clothing brushes by one of the plants, and in turn you touch them – by putting on your gardening boots or petting your dog – and come in contact with the toxic oil.

The toxin responsible for the allergic reaction is urushiol and once the urushiol comes in contact with human skin, it “locks on” within just a few minutes. It then affixes itself to the underlying tissue, gets into the immune system and triggers a histamine reaction in the body resulting in allergic contact dermatitis.

The urushiol is difficult to remove, and using plain soaps and water can spread the substance rather than remove it. The reaction, the itchy rash, is not immediate. Depending on the person’s sensitivity, the rash may not develop for 24 – 72 hours after exposure. This is when a massage therapist needs to be most aware and alert when questioning a client prior to the massage session.

Unknowingly Spreading Poison Ivy

Because the urushiol is oil soluble, it can bind to other oils. And, a very small amount – just two micrograms – of the urushiol can cause a fairly severe reaction. Combine this with the delay in reaction and you can have a potentially dangerous situation. While the situation might be rare, there could be a case of a client working in a garden the morning of, or even a day or two prior to coming for a massage. Unbeknownst to the client, the oil could still remain on the skin even after taking a shower.

As the massage therapist spreads the oil, the urushiol can easily be disbursed to other areas of the body and result in a very dangerous situation. The same holds true for a massage therapist who may have come in contact with the toxic plants. If you have touched the plant with your hands or forearms and not yet had a reaction, you could spread the oils and transfer them to your client’s skin.

The Best Precaution is Prevention

The best way to avoid the rash caused by poison ivy is to avoid coming in contact with the plant, or anything that has come in contact with it that you might touch. If you do come in contact with it the best thing to do is to wash the area with warm water and a commercially available poison ivy soap. There are also topical creams and gels to apply if you expect to come in contact with poison ivy.

Contrary to some urban myths, repeated exposure to small amounts of poison ivy does not enhance your immunity to the toxin; in many cases it actually intensifies future reactions. Another dangerous folk remedy for preventing poison ivy reactions is to ingest small amounts of the plant. This is not just dangerous, but can cause death. Equally toxic to the body is the inhaling of smoke from burning poison ivy/oak/sumac.

10 Easy Remedies for Moderate Reactions

Sometimes the best remedies are those that are natural and have been found to be successful by our friends, neighbors, relatives and local herbalists. Here are some topical applications with ingredients you probably have in and around the house:

1. Banana skins, plantain juice or puree
2. Tea tree oil
3. A paste of goldenseal root powder and aloe vera gel
4. Jewelweed (If you have poison ivy in your yard, chances are jewelweed is growing nearby.)
5. Juice from fresh cut rhubarb
6. Baking soda mixed with water to form a paste
7. Distilled white vinegar
8. Epsom salt baths
9. Lemon juice
10. Honey suckle leaves, steeped in water

Calamine lotion is a standard tried and true treatment, and applying ice to the area will cool and numb the skin and at least temporarily reduce the symptoms.

Boost Your Immune System

Boosting your immune system may help to mitigate the symptoms as well.

  • Taking extra Vitamin C can help to prevent infection and slow down the rapid spread of the rash.
  • Calcium and Beta-Carotene help boost the immune response and speed healing.
  • Zinc helps to repair damaged skin tissue.

Urusiol is said to be one of the most potent natural toxins on the planet, and it is found just about everywhere. Avoiding getting this plant oil on your skin is the only absolute way to prevent it and to keep it from transferring to and from your clients.

SOURCE: Institute for Integrative Healthcare Studies; http://www.integrative-healthcare.org/mt/archives/2009/08/post.html