Field of Science

Urrrrrr - it itches!

The spring was cold and so the itch to get outdoors once the warm weather arrived was hard to resist. As moms will tell you, scratching just makes the itching worse, and scratching even metaphorical itches can raise welts. Ask anyone who has heeded the siren call of summer and ended up with hives, or worse yet, encountered a patch of poison ivy.

My niece and I took a tour last week of the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia which has a great collection of wax models of dermatological pathology, used for teaching students in the days before slides and PowerPoint, including hives or urticaria. The name comes from the Latin for nettle, and the resulting skin wheals certainly bear some resemblance to nettle stings (as my youngest can attest after a close encounter with that plant). Histamine leaking from mast cells in the skin is responsible for hives' principal misery - itching.

True misery is reserved for those who have contacted Toxicodendron radicans - poison ivy - or a relative. These plants produce urushiol, which binds tightly to proteins in the skin. Molecules like this are called haptens, which comes from the Greek "to fasten". Antibodies don't recognize the small molecule until it fastens onto its target. Then the body reacts, in this case triggering the characteristic linear rash, and keeps reacting until the invader detaches from its binding site.

Despite the similarity in names between urticaria and urushiol, they come from different roots. Urushiol was first isolated from the Japanese lacquer tree - the urushi - by a Japanese chemist, Miyama.

Other haptens can react with the same sites as urushiol, including substances found in mango skin and fresh cashew nuts, with similar unfortunate consequences.

Urushiol isn't just a weekend gardener's nuisance, but can cause serious problems for fire fighters in working brush fires in areas such as the California hills, where poison sumac, another urushiol producing plant, thrives. The chemistry gives some clues to helping prevent and treat urushiol reactions. Application of an organic derivative of an absorbent mineral (bentonite) can soak up and trap any oil before it reaches the skin and binds- this is the principal behind the commercial product Ivy Block. Alternatively, something that binds strongly to the urushiol target but is not itself a hapten could act as a preventative. D-Limonene, found in citrus skins, has been floated as a possibility, but I couldn't find any evidence that it works!

Once the stuff has bound, you just have to wait it out. It takes a couple of weeks for the bulk of the urushiol-protein complexes to break down. In the meantime, steroids can reduce the inflammatory reaction and histamine blockers, H1 (like Benadryl) or H2 (Tagamet or Zantac) can provide some relief from the itch.


  1. Thank you for your blog, Dr. Francl! It has been more beneficial to me than words can say. How do you "eff" the ineffable?
    -- James //
    -- Cipparrone |

  2. Actually, a product called Zanfel is remarkably effective at treating poison ivy. It makes the rash diminish or even go away immediately.

  3. Eeuch! I can remember having the same symtpoms from poison ivy. Not pleasant at all!


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