Poison Ivy and Hot Showers

Taking a hot shower to help handle poison ivy itchiness is a topic that can get a wide range of responses even from nurses. Some are all for it while others have been taught to be against it. Here's the scoop!

I've had poison ivy many times now. So I've "lived the life" of extreme itchiness. During those itchy periods I have tried every sane (and a few less than sane) methods for taming the itchiness. I know completely what it is like to be insane with itchiness. Your body is desperately craving for you to itch and it is only the tenuous force of your brain which restrains your nails from digging into your flesh.

Some nurses have been taught to NOT let you take hot showers. Here is their rationale. Your skin is inflammed by the poison ivy rash. The heat from the shower will cause the blood vessels near the skin to widen, bringing more blood and white blood cells to that inflamed area. The result is that the rash area will temporarily get MORE inflamed, i.e. the rash area will get slightly puffier. They see this as a bad thing.

However, here is what is happening at the same time. That area of skin is currently sending out a non-stream set of messages going ITCH ITCH ITCH. It is driving the brain absolutely bananas. With the heat, you are overriding that message with a more important message of HEAT!!! - and the heat message wins! For a period of time, ranging from 1-6 hours, the heat message shuts down the pain receptors. They stop sending any signal at all. You stop itching! Your brain gets a critical break from the itch signal. It is able to re-build its defenses. Your skin is able to heal. You are gearing up for the next battle. As pain researchers can tell you, those breaks are absolutely crucial in holding out againt the overall onslaught.

Yes, your rash is slightly more red during that time period. In the overall healing process it doesn't matter at all. What matters is that respite from the itchy signal so your brain can recoup and prepare for a fresh round of resisting. It can help you sleep better, and sleep is crucial to healing. It can reduce your stress levels, and having less stress hormones racing in your system is also crucial to healing.

Some doctors have even told us that, depending on what stage the rash is in, the hot shower water causes a second beneficial reaction - it causes the damaged cells with the results of the urusiol oil in them (the urushiol oil gets converted into another substance by the body, and that other substance is what is causing the damage at this point) to rupture. Those ruptured cells are then more easily cleaned up by the white blood cells. The heat causes the capillaries to all open up and let far more blood into the area, rushing the "cleanup cells" through the area to do that cleanup. So it is like having an accident on a highway and having a traffic jam - then suddenly doubling the width of the highway so more ambulances can get in. It helps the overall healing process.

You could say, well why not take it super slow, cool down the rash area, so it's not inflamed more? But the last thing someone with poison ivy wants is for the rash healing to go as slowly as possible. They are in a minute-by-minute torture. Someone who hasn't had serious poison ivy can't imagine what the torture is like every single minute. To be able to get it all over with more quickly - and to get a break from the itching! - are both critical things to happen.

So while I have hit a nurse or two who has been trained to recommend only tepid showers in order to keep the rash inflammation to a minimum, I heartily disagree with them - and at least half of the doctors and nurses I work with agree with me. They - and I! - feel that the benefits of a hot shower FAR outweigh the minor issues they cause.

Of course I personally am NOT a doctor, so always talk with your doctor, but if they push you towards avoiding hot showers, ask them what the worst that can happen is if you take one - and point out that the best result is an amazingly helpful one.

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