Allergic Skin Reactions: Home Remedies
The skin is the body’s largest organ. A number of things can trigger local skin inflammation, or dermatitis, in sensitive people. In contact dermatitis, the offending agents come into direct contact with the skin. Examples include poison ivy, nickel jewelry, sheep’s lanolin, topical antibiotics, and ingredients in detergents and body-care products. Radiation administered to cancer patients can also cause dermatitis.
Some people have eczema, also called atopic dermatitis, a condition that tends to run in families, along with hay fever and asthma. Affected patches of skin are red, itchy, scaly, and thickened, and in some cases oozing and crusty. Allergens that provoke the inflammation may be difficult or impossible to identify. Hives is another skin condition often caused by an allergic reaction. Red, raised itchy patches of skin appear suddenly and may disappear as quickly as they came. Caused by a release of histamine in response to an allergen, hives can be triggered by just about anything—food, sun, dust mites, stress, medication, and more.
Treatment for any of these conditions depends upon the underlying cause. If your watch’s nickel backing left a red, crusty patch on your wrist, you’ll need to replace it. If you’re allergic to the antibiotic you’re taking, you may need to switch medications and remember to never take that antibiotic again (as the reaction could be more severe next time around). If you’re allergic to bee venom and are stung, you’ll need an epinephrine injection. If you are prone to hives, a simple antihistamine can often calm the allergic reaction. If you have eczema, your doctor will probably advise switching to hypoallergenic personal care products and laundry detergent, keeping your skin hydrated, and prescription anti-inflammatory creams for flare-ups.
In ancient China, healers considered eczema “asthma of the skin,” as many who suffered skin outbreaks also suffered asthma. Allergies were treated through acupuncture, herbs, and most important, by modifying the diet to increase foods that cool the body (fresh fruits and vegetables and green tea) and to reduce foods that heat the body (pumpkin, squash, onion, garlic, chilies, and ginger). In India, healers saw dermatitis as a mild form of leprosy and balanced three treatments: reducing stress, abstaining from dairy and fish, and using massage to increase circulation. Many of these treatments are still in use today.
SALAD DRESSING TO FOIL INFLAMMATION
1 part olive oil
1 part flaxseed oil
1 part balsamic vinegar
1 part apple cider vinegar
Preparation and Use: Combine all the ingredients in a dressing shaker and shake vigorously ten times. Pour over salad and toss. You may think that eating oil will cause your skin to break out; in fact, oil is an anti-inflammatory. The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil are especially effective in retarding inflammatory reactions in cells.
COLLOIDAL OATMEAL BATH
2 to 3 cups (160 to 240 g) regular or colloidal oats
Preparation and Use: If using regular oats, pour them into a food processor, coffee grinder, or blender and blend to a powder. This turns them into colloidal oats. Pour the oats into warm, running bathwater. Disperse oats with your hand. (Alternatively, pour the oats into a sock, bag, or bandana to contain the particles and help with clean-up and place the sock in the bathwater.) Climb in and soak for at least 15 minutes. (Avoid using soap, which only dries and further irritates the skin.) After leaving the bath, pat your skin dry with a clean towel. Oats have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity. Applied topically, oats moisturize the skin and decrease itching. The gooeyness you feel when you squeeze the sock is caused by the complex carbohydrates in the oats.
Note: You can make a large batch of colloidal oats and store in a tightly sealed jar or tin in a cool, dry place.
AFTER BATH NATURAL MOISTURIZER
¼ cup (55 ml) Aloe Vera gel
¼ cup (60 ml) high-quality oil (olive, almond, coconut, apricot, or grapeseed)
12 drops German chamomile essential oil
Preparation and Use: In a clean bowl, whisk together the aloe gel and oil. Blend in the German chamomile oil. Immediately after bathing or showering, while your skin is still damp, apply a generous amount to your skin with clean fingers. Allow a couple of minutes for the moisturizer to absorb before getting dressed.
• Aloe Vera gel is anti-inflammatory, soothing, and hydrating. Lab studies indicate that aloe can promote healing and may reduce inflammation in eczema.
• German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) has chemicals that reduce inflammation and allergies. More specifically, the flavonoids quercetin and apigenin inhibit the release of histamine from immune cells called mast cells. Lab studies indicate that it improves eczemalike skin conditions. Essential oil of chamomile looks blue, due to a potent anti-inflammatory chemical called chamazulene.
Note: Store leftover moisturizer in a clean, dry jar and throw it away after two weeks when it’s time for a fresh recipe.
SOOTHING OAT PASTE
1 tablespoon (5 g) colloidal oatmeal
1 teaspoon (5 g) baking soda
Drops of water, as needed
Preparation and Use: In a small bowl, stir together the colloidal oatmeal and baking soda until blended. Gradually add just enough water to form a paste. Apply to irritated areas with clean fingers. Once dry, rinse it off with warm water. The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities in oatmeal relieve itching. Baking soda neutralizes the acids that promote itchy skin.
POISON IVY (OR OAK) POTION
1 part calamine lotion
1 part Aloe Vera gel
Preparation and Use: Mix the lotion and aloe gel in a clean bowl. Apply to affected areas with clean fingers, cotton swabs, or cotton balls. Allow the mixture to dry and then rinse off. The zinc oxide and ferric oxide in calamine lotion are antipruritic, or anti-itch, agents. Aloe Vera gel feels cool and adds anti-inflammatory relief. This is an effective, time-honoured recipe for the rash caused by poison ivy and poison oak.
1 quart (946 ml) water (or more if you have lots of jewelweed)
Armful of jewelweed
Preparation and Use: Bring the water to a boil in a big pot. Turn off the heat. Put the jewelweed in the pot, cover it, and let it steep for at least 30 minutes. Pour the mixture (a deep brown tea) into a gallon jar or into ice cube trays and freeze. Rub on the poison ivy rash as soon as you experience the first signs of itching. Urushiol, an oily resin in the sap of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac, causes an allergic reaction in those who are sensitive to it. Jewelweed has strong anti-inflammatory properties. It acts on urushiol to relieve the itching and blisters and halt the spread of the rash.
Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is a tall, stemmed plant with orange and yellow trumpet-shaped flowers, usually found growing wild near streams and in deep shade in the woods. My family keeps a batch of this handy during poison ivy season. (Jewelweed can sometimes be found at nurseries, but don’t confuse it with the shade-tolerant garden annual Impatiens walleriana, also known as “Busy Lizzy.” That one will not help your poison ivy.) ~ BHS
SCALP THERAPY OIL
½ cup (120 ml) olive or vegetable oil
3 drops lavender essential oil
Preparation and Use: Before bedtime, warm the oil in a saucepan until it feels soothing to the touch. Apply to your scalp. Put an old cloth or towel over your pillow and sleep. In the morning, use a mild shampoo to wash away the remaining oil. This natural moisturizer soothes the affected scalp.
SAGE SKIN WASH
1 cup (235 ml) water
1 tablespoon (2 g) dried sage
Preparation and Use: In a small pot, bring the water to a boil and then pour into a cup. Add the dried sage, cover, and let steep for at least 15 minutes. Strain and allow to cool to room temperature. Apply to the affected area with a clean cloth.
Allow the skin to dry before getting dressed. Do not rinse off the sage mixture. In a 2011 study in Japan, researchers used sage and rosemary, among other herbal extracts, on dermatitis lesions on mice and found that repeated applications significantly healed the skin lesions.
FACT OR MYTH?
Stress can aggravate eczema. Yes! To help counteract a breakout and increasing irritation, take a long walk, bike, or swim; do the Stress Less exercise (see page 119) in a quiet room; or meditate.
All chamomiles have the same healing properties. No! Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) is a different species and chemically distinct. Although it has benefits of its own, it lacks German chamomile’s anti-inflammatory impact.
For an extra jolt of good-for-you oils, never consume cod liver oil. It contains too much vitamin A for your system and can even cause a bleeding disorder. Instead, opt for other sources of healthy oils. Add walnuts and avocados to salad. Add hemp seeds to cereal and smoothies. Eat oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, etc.) at least once a week. Or take a daily EPA/DHA capsule.
Brew a fresh pot of coffee and take a handful of the wet grounds. Rubbing them on your hands will soothe them and relieve inflammation.
WHEN SIMPLE DOESN’T WORK
Consult with your family physician for stronger over-the-counter or prescription medications.
WHEN TO CALL THE DOCTOR
You develop a rash around your eyes, mouth, genitals, or over much of your body from poison ivy or poison oak.
Skin inflammation worsens or becomes infected, as evidenced by increased redness, heat, and pus.
Fever or other signs of more serious illness accompany skin inflammation.