The Greek philosopher Aristotle is believed to have said, "in all things of nature there is something of the marvelous." It seems that for the treatment of poison ivy, nature has provided us with a marvelous antidote, jewelweed. Jewelweed is more commonly known as impatiens, a group of flowering plants that are found throughout the Northern Hemisphere and even the tropics.
Extracts from the stem and leaves of members of the impatiens group prevent and may relieve the rash caused by contact with poison ivy.
Poison ivy is commonly found in much of North America as well as areas of Mexico, Japan, Taiwan and China. The active ingredient in poison ivy causing the painful skin rash is a compound called urushiol. Interestingly, the word urushiol is derived from the Japanese word for a tree that makes urushiol. Chemically treating urushiol forms a hard lacquer, which is used in oriental pottery. Sensitive individuals however who come into contact with urushiol can develop a severe, painful and lasting skin rash.
Unfortunately, poison ivy is more common now than in the past because of real estate development next to undeveloped land. This creates a buffer zone that allows poison ivy to thrive. Also, increasing carbon dioxide levels in our hemisphere seem to stimulate poison ivy growth. Since the 1960s, it has been estimated that the amount of poison ivy in our environment has doubled.
Treatment for poison ivy can be very simple and involves simply washing with soap and water. However, many people may not recognize that they have come in contact with poison ivy until too late or do not have soap and water readily available. Once the rash is taken hold, therapy usually consists of calamine lotion or Benadryl to help reduce some of the symptoms.
In more severe cases, topical steroids may be necessary. However, even with medical therapies, the rash and pain of poison ivy can go on for days. Treating the skin as soon after contact as possible is the best option. This is where jewelweed maybe beneficial.
Jewelweed is often found growing in the same vicinity as poison ivy. Historically, the liquid in the stems and leaves have benefit in both the prevention of skin rash as well as relief of symptoms after contact with poison ivy.
In addition, some have also recommended jewelweed for the treatment of other skin rashes, bee stings and even mosquito bites. The active ingredient seems to be a compound called 2-methoxy-1,4-naphthoquinone. This compound has significant anti-inflammatory properties as well as being a fungicide. It is also one of the active ingredients in the hemorrhoid treatment cream, Preparation H.
Only two medical studies have investigated jewelweed and poison ivy. One study utilizing a jewelweed extract did not demonstrate a benefit. A second study using the jewelweed plant itself demonstrated significant benefit.
All things in nature have an antidote and for poison ivy, it is jewelweed. As a cautionary note, I strongly suggest becoming familiar with jewelweed before rubbing any plant stems or leaves on your skin.
• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Health System. His website is www.alt-med.org.