Poison Ivy Has Nothing on Chinese Herbs

by Dr. Eric Karchmer, PhD, MD (China), LAc |

Poison Ivy Has Nothing on Chinese Herbs

I fear poison ivy. The slightest brush up against this powerful plant will leave me with a fierce rash - red, swollen, blistered, and intensely itchy.  Although it seems that are a small minority of folks that don't react to urushiol - the oil produced by the poison ivy plant - most of us will get a nasty allergic reaction that can persist for a couple weeks or more.

Poison ivy is particularly annoying because it grows in various forms - on the ground, as a shrub, or as a climbing vine - and is well suited to "distressed environments," where it grows along the edge of yards, gardens, pathways, and in wooded areas that have little sunlight., it seems devilishly well adapted to torment humans because it thrives around the edges of human habitation.

My education on how to treat poison ivy rash with Chinese herbs began about 10 years ago, when my wife and I moved into a rental property that was teeming with poison ivy. It was only after moving in that I realized poison ivy vines were tenaciously clinging to countless trees in the wooded areas that bordered our yard, some of them large hairy vines that were more than 6 inches in diameter.

Although I tried to keep a respectful distance from these fearsome plants, I was getting frequent rashes, perhaps caused by our dog as he dashed in and out of the woods and back to me for affection. After suffering through a couple outbreaks, I began to ponder how I might treat the rash with Chinese medicine.

Initially, I was at a loss. I have never seen a case of poison ivy rash during my medical training in China. In fact, I had never seen the plant in China, and none of my Chinese friends seemed to have even heard of it.

A few years later, the father of one of my Chinese friends told me that he knew the plant. He had spent many years in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution and colorfully described it as the plant “that makes your bottom itch horribly when you have to go into the woods to relieve yourself."

From Eczema to Poison Ivy

One day, while doing some yard work, I looked up and to my horror realized I had been brushing up against some poison ivy. I immediately went to wash myself in an attempt to rinse the oils off my body. But the next day both of my forearms were ominously inflamed. As I looked down at this angry rash, I recalled an eczema outbreak, which had also started on my forearms, several years earlier when I was a student in Beijing.

Could that eczema outbreak be the key to treating poison ivy rash with Chinese medicine? I reminded myself that all Chinese medicine treatments start with the clinical presentation and work to a description of a “pattern of disharmony” or underlying pathology. The pattern of disharmony is a Chinese medicine construct, unrelated to the Western medicine disease diagnosis.

In other words, it shouldn't matter what caused the rash, as long as my assessment of the presentation was correct, I should be able to treat it.

I knew very well from personal experience that an acute eczema outbreak is caused by a pattern of “heat and dampness” according to Chinese medicine. My first experience with eczema began one morning, seemingly out of the blue, when I noticed myself clawing at my forearms. They were red, hot, swollen, with small liquid-filled blisters.

At the time, I was in the final year of my clinical training. My teachers quickly identified my rash as acute eczema (not the dry, scaly, chronic form that many of us get in the winter). I was annoyed by this irritating rash but too busy to do much about it. I just hoped it would go away.

To my horror, the exact opposite happened. The rash spread every day over the next week, until it covered most of my body and itched so horribly that sleep became utterly impossible. Desperate, beleaguered, I made my way to the dermatology department of the hospital where I was training. I was lucky enough to get an appointment with one of the best doctors in the department. As she wrote out the prescription, she explained to me that she was prescribing me a large prescription of bitter and cooling herbs to drain and clear the considerable heat and dampness that I had.

I cooked up the formula as soon as I got home. My mouth puckered with the first sip. I had never tasted anything so bitter in my life. But as I forced the decoction down, I immediately sensed a wave of wonderful coolness spreading over the surface of my body. Was I having some sort of psychosomatic reaction? Could the herbs work that quickly? I still itched quite intensely, but I knew with that first dose that the prescription would work.

Dermatological treatments in Chinese medicine tend to work from the inside out, treating the skin by treating the whole body. This formula indeed seemed to calm my entire body. After three weeks of herbal decoctions, my eczema had totally disappeared.

“Dermatological treatment plans from Traditional Chinese Medicine thoroughly heal the skin and the whole body.”

Recalling this treatment as I looked at my angry poison ivy rash, I decided to try a similar formula of bitter and cooling herbs. To my delight, it worked! In about 5 days, all that was left of my rash was some dry, peeling skin that needed a just little more time to fully heal.

Since that discovery, I have successfully treated many patients with poison ivy outbreaks in the exact same way. The next time you have a poison ivy rash, considering making an appointment with a Chinese medicine herbalist in your area. A knowledgeable clinician - one who knows how to treat eczema - could save you from weeks of agony. (DAO Labs plans to come out with a product for skin rashes in the near future.)

A Final Insight from Chinese Medicine: Watch What You Eat

There is one more important insight from Chinese medicine you should understand to help manage a poison ivy outbreak: strictly avoid fish, shellfish, lamb, alcohol, and excessive use of spices, all of which are warming or irritating foods for the duration of the outbreak.

In Chinese medicine, we tell eczema patients to follow the exact same food prohibitions. I learned the hard way the value of these prohibitions. As it so happened, my eczema rash first appeared the day after I had a large dish of roasted lamb at a Uyghur (a Chinese ethnic minority) restaurant in Beijing. In the several days between the appearance of my rash and my trip to the hospital, I had several dinners of fish and seafood. In retrospect, this is why my rash spread so aggressively from my forearms to my whole body.

At the time, I had already learned about these food prohibitions in my classes, but I foolishly ignored them. Why should I avoid foods that I frequently eat with no problems whatsoever? The answer from a biomedical perspective is that eczema produces a type of immune system hypersensitivity. Under these conditions, certain foods can trigger a strong allergic response. Amazingly, once the state of hypersensitivity resolves, the allergic response to these foods disappears.

Likewise, I also learned the hard way that poison ivy rash produces a similar type of immune system hypersensitivity. One Friday afternoon, I was leaving town with my wife to attend the rehearsal dinner for a friend’s wedding. One the way, I noticed, to my great irritation, that I had a couple of mildly itchy, red spots on my forearm. I immediately suspected another poison ivy rash.

To my dismay, I realized I wouldn’t be able to treat it with Chinese herbs until we returned home at the end of the weekend. Fortunately, the rash wasn’t too bad and did not seem to worsen over the next few hours of travel. Later that evening, however, my forearms suddenly became inflamed. As I started to claw at them, my eyes landed on the gin and tonic and shrimp appetizer that I had just put down, so I could scratch. I had a small eureka: if poison ivy can be treated more or less like eczema, then it should be managed with the same food prohibitions too.

I did not have another drink that night and made sure to only eat “bland” foods for the rest of the evening. By the next morning, the rash had calmed down considerably. I followed the same regimen for the next day. While I seemed to be the only sober guest at the wedding reception, I was delighted just to be enjoying the evening with only mildly itchy forearms. When we got home the next day, I immediately prepared a Chinese medicine prescription. Within a few days, I was free to enjoy seafood and mixed drinks again.

Care Consideration: Just a reminder that the above information is not a substitute for medical care and is not a substitute for medical advice or recommendations  from a healthcare provider.  This information is not intended to treat, mitigate or cure any disease.  That said, we encourage you to connect with an Acupuncturist in your community to learn more about this and other Traditional Chinese Medicine options.  If you’ve got questions about Chinese herbal medicine or getting started with an Acupuncturist, feel free to connect with us on hello@mydaolabs.com

Dr. Eric Karchmer is a practicing Chinese medical doctor, medical anthropologist, and co-founder and Chief Doctor of Chinese Medicine for DAO Labs. From 1995-2000, Eric studied at the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine and today is both a licensed acupuncturist and professor at Appalachian State University. Eric can be reached at drkarchmer@mydaolabs.com.

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