Poison oak reactions range from localized irritations to systemic responses. Being highly sensitive myself, I have compared some of my own responses to second-degree burns, lasting months and leaving scars. Using a Chinese medical model can help treat the various stages of poison oak rash more successfully.
The main stages of the rash and their Chinese medical diagnoses are:
Papules: red itchy bumps, indicating Wind-heat in Chinese dermatology.
Vesicles: liquid filled blisters, indicating Damp-Heat.
Pustules: vesicles with oozing yellow pus, indicating Damp-Heat or Heat-Toxin.
Crusts: pustules broken open and crusted over, indicating Heat-Toxin.
Since all four stages contain heat, the main treatment should be to clear the heat out of the body. In Chinese medicine there are a variety of ways to deal with heat, such as cooling the blood with herbs, clearing heat with acupuncture, and drawing the heat out topically.
The depth of the reaction in the body is one of the determining factors for treatment. Compare, for instance, a reaction that is localized and stays closer to the surface with a broader more systemic reaction, or one with a fever. In the early stages, when the reaction is still localized, treatment might include the principle of “venting the rash to the surface”, releasing heat contained in the body and pushing it out faster. However, the “poison” in poison oak complicates the picture, and leads the astute herbalist to always add some toxin-eliminating herbs to the formula.
Once the rash has developed vesicles, or pustules, drying herbs and herbs that eliminate toxins become more prominent in the treatment, both internally and topically.
Finally, the skin will need some help healing, and in this stage some supportive herbs should be added.
Other considerations in treating poison oak include age and general constitution, and the location of the rash. Diet should include cooling foods such as melons, while avoiding hot spicy or greasy food, and alcohol.