Well, it’s that time of year again. Poison ivy is popping up everywhere, ready to inflict pain and suffering on anyone who comes in contact with it.
Actually, exposure to poison ivy can affect a person no matter what time of the year it is, but more on that later.
“Leaves of three, let it be?”
That’s good advice, but many other plants have leaves of three and are totally harmless, such as the box elder tree.
Sadly, millions of box elder saplings are senselessly murdered each year simply because they resemble poison ivy.
All kidding aside, it is definitely best to avoid poison ivy and poison oak, so the phrase is quite apt. However, for people who explore wooded areas and often don’t stay on trails and sidewalks — people like me — poison ivy exposure is sometimes unavoidable.
Now there is a way to prevent a skin rash even after exposure to the ivy, but more on that further into the column.
The bad stuff
Poison ivy, along with poison oak and poison sumac, contains urushiol. It’s a resin, or oil if you will. That is the bad stuff. For most people, exposure to urushiol will cause an allergic reaction.
There are people, however, about 10 to 15 percent, who won’t have an allergic reaction to the oil. Well, aren’t they special? Then there are others who will get a full-body rash from just looking at poison ivy! That’s actually not true, and, sarcasm aside, there are those who are extremely sensitive to the resin.
How the rash occurs
Many things happen once urushiol contacts the skin. But since all the precise details may put some people to sleep, I’ll try to keep it simple. And, just for the sake of clarity, I’m not a scientist.
What typically happens after exposure to urushiol is a skin rash. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rash occurs after the body’s defense mechanisms sort of overreact to a perceived threat.
The CDCP reports that sometime after urushiol contacts the skin, chemicals from the oil seep into the body and bind with skin proteins. Specific cells adhere themselves to the proteins and the chemicals, believing the body is being invaded by a dangerous substance. The cells then send out an alarm that the body is under attack.
A T-cell army responds to fight the foreign invasion. The response leaves specific proteins reaching the blood, which can cause itching and swelling. During the defensive attack, skin tissue that was exposed to the oil is destroyed, but some healthy cells get destroyed as well, causing red skin and blisters — the dreaded poison ivy rash.
How it spreads
Contrary to popular belief, you can’t spread a poison ivy rash — urushiol-induced contact dermatitis — from one place on the body to another by scratching. Where goes the urushiol, so goes the rash.
And that oil can get on lots of things, like shoes, clothing, tools, etc. The oil can stay on a surface — and remain potent — for months and sometimes years, depending on the surface.
Even pets can bring it to you. Let’s say “Fido” goes out and rolls around in a bed of poison ivy, gets the urushiol on its fur, then heads home. You then pet Fido, with the oil in the animal’s coat, and touch someplace on your body. You can then get the rash in those places.
And, as I mentioned previously, the effects of poison ivy can occur at any time of year.
While hiking many years ago, my then-young son placed his arm against a tree. And, without his or my knowledge, right against a poison ivy vine. A day or so later, he developed quite a rash on that arm.
Where were the leaves of three? Well, they were dead during the winter months. However, every part of poison ivy contains urushiol — leaves, vine, etc. So, even a dormant vine in winter can cause a rash.
Prevent the rash
Now, preventing the rash from developing after exposure to poison ivy is possible, experts say.
I once heard a dermatologist say to use rubbing alcohol, because, he said, soap can spread the oil around.
I don’t know if that’s true because most experts recommend washing the affected area with soap and water as soon as possible after exposure to urushiol. Even the American Academy of Dermatologists recommends washing the affected area with lukewarm, soapy water as quickly as possible.
According to the Mayo Clinic, within 30 minutes of exposure to urushiol, use soap and water to wash the harmful resin off of the skin gently.
I’m going to side with the experts. However, some people have “sure fixes” for preventing the rash. I once saw a video where a man said to not only use soap and water but to use a washrag plus soap and water. He said using a rag, along with soap and water, was more effective than soap and water only.
I’m not sure if that’s true, and I really don’t want to experiment!
Treatment for rash
I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one in columns, so I will leave the treatment suggestions to the experts at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic.
The severity of the rash depends on the amount of urushiol that gets on the skin. A section of skin with more urushiol on it may develop a rash sooner. It may also be more severe.
The clinic lists rash symptoms as redness, itching, swelling and blisters.
A poison ivy rash will eventually go away on its own after about two or three weeks. However, there are many home remedies, which include applying an over-the-counter corticosteroid cream for the first few days.
The clinic also recommends applying calamine lotion and placing a cool, wet compress on the affected area for 15 to 30 minutes several times a day.
If the rash is severe or widespread, it is advised to seek medical attention.
Eliminating poison ivy
Getting rid of poison ivy can be done with herbicides or, the more environmentally friendly way, by pulling young sprouts (with heavy gloves) and disposing of them.
There are even companies which specialize in eradicating poison ivy from properties. But eliminating poison ivy could be a column in itself.
One thing that should never occur is the burning of poison ivy — be it alive or dead. Breathing in burning urushiol can cause a host of problems.
Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for 40 years. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.