Friday, June 6, 2014

Poison Ivy, Lord, Will Make You Itch!

You're Going To Need An Ocean

Of Calamine Lotion

The weather is beautiful and the sunshine calls us outside to play.  As human creatures we need to be aware of some things that can create trouble for us - too much sun, for instance - biting insects - POISON IVY!  Anywhere from 60% to 90% of the population is vulnerable to the rash that Poison Ivy produces.  Every single part of the plant is a potential hazard - everything!  Most people are not well-informed about Poison Ivy or how to deal with it (carefully).  This post will, I sincerely hope, give you tools to help keep you safe and to be able to recognize and avoid contact with the oil (urushiol) in the sap and on bruised surfaces of this family of plants.  The pronunciation of urushiol is yoo-ROO-shee-ol.

Poison Ivy at a fence on sand dunes -
Island Beach State Park, NJ, USA
The first thing to know is that poison ivy can grow just about anywhere and it can look very different from what you expect.  The Eastern Poison Ivy is a vine while the Western version is a shrub.  I can only show you the Eastern vining kind in my pictures, but you'll see links in this post to help you with other kinds.  Sometimes there are even more than 3 leaves and leaf shapes may vary widely.  Familiarize yourself with the general appearance and don't play in strange foliage:>)

Although it is a vine, Eastern Poison Ivy can look like a ground cover, a shrub, a tree, and a vine.

Here are maps of distribution from the CDC (Centers For Disease Control) and a link to the site.

Note I'm showing distribution for both Poison Ivy and Poison Oak.  They are related and often confused.  In truth, it doesn't make a whole lot of difference if you don't know the difference - the results of contact are the same and unpleasant, even medically serious for some people.

A quote from the CDC site is "When exposed to 50 micrograms of urushiol, an amount that is less than one grain of table salt, 80 to 90 percent of adults will develop a rash."

The oil, urushoil, causes a red, bumpy, itchy, and often blistering rash on the skin.  Once the skin is exposed it may take anywhere from four (4) hours to a week for the rash to appear.  There may also be a span of time between body areas that break out.  The skin between the fingers may erupt within a few hours and part of the arm, for instance, may not show the rash until a day or so later.

There are a million remedies to be found on the internet.  Once the rash appears you can use a paste of baking soda and water, take an oatmeal bath (I wouldn't because we have a septic tank), use calamine lotion or ivy dry.  I did read that using benedryl as a topical cream is not good so check before you do that.

If the oil gets into eyes it can be very serious and medical attention may be needed.  The treatment is usually steroids, as I understand it, and relief is not immediate.  For the small percentage of folks who do not react to poison ivy, thats GREAT!  For the rest of us, BEWARE!  the oil is present on all parts of the plant - leaves, flowers, berries, roots, stems - and even dead plants can cause a rash for up to and even more than five (5) years.  Don't ever assume because a plant is dead you can handle it.

Even more dangerous is burning the plant or any part of it.  The oil does not combust (burn) at the same low temperature as wood.  Particles of the oil are suspended on smoke molecules and can be breathed in.  This is very, very dangerous, even life-threatening in extreme cases.  Do not burn poison ivy (or poison oak) - NEVER!!!!  NO NO NO NO NO NO NO

Remember it is the oil that causes the rash and the blisters.  If you break open a blister and someone else comes in contact with the liquid inside the blister, there is no transmission of poison ivy.  The liquid in any blister is only your body's response to fight germs.  It is made by your body especially to fight infection, kill germs, and to heal you.  The liquid inside the blister is not contagious.

You can give poison ivy to another person by touching them with your hands after you handled poison ivy or if they come in contact with your clothing or pets that have the urushoil on them.

Plants can vary quite a bit but they almost always have three (3) leaves together - the leaves are most often shiny, but don't count on that as a hard and fast rule.  Some plants are not very shiny at all.  A saying that serves as a good reminder is, "Leaves of three, let it be".  There are a lot of other vines with sets of three leaves that are harmless, but the rule is a good one if you're unsure of what plant you are looking at.

Throughout this post you'll see pictures of various stages in the growth cycle of poison ivy.  These two images below are of early springtime leaves sprouting.  The top image (red leaves) is in Pennsylvania and the second picture is from the New Jersey shore.  

The urushoil is extremely difficult to remove so contact means you should do the following immediately.  Wash any exposed skin with COOL water and dish soap (or a degreasing solution of some sort).  Regular bar soap does not cut the oil and hot water can open pores and allow the oil into the skin.  REMEMBER:  COOL WATER & DISH SOAP
Brown laundry soap like Fels Naptha also works:>)

Likewise, clothing must be thoroughly washed in a soap that removes oily substances and here you can use hot water if you wish.  Anything that comes in contact with either you or your clothes must also be washed.  The oil remains potent for years, so don't expect it to go away.  You have to remove it.

Pets that go roaming through the woods or fields are likely to bring home the oil on their fur, feet, and skin.  If you are getting the rash but have been nowhere near poison ivy, consider this possible source.  I've also heard that a small number of pets can get poison ivy themselves - don't know how accurate that is, however.  If your pet brings the oil home you can get the rash by petting the animal, sitting where it has been sitting, etc.  This is pernicious stuff.

Poison Ivy flowers in late spring and early summer.  The flowers are white or cream colored and are found in clusters as shown in the pictures below.  These are examples of what you might see, and one is a closeup of the flowers.

Eastern Poison Ivy has thick, clinging, hairy roots.  These, too, should never be touched!  These four pictures will help you identify them.

Berries from the plant are an important food source for birds.  Nothing in nature is without a good use, and poison ivy is no exception.  Some browsing animals (goats, for example) eat it.

If you are going into an area where you think you'll be exposed to poison ivy, wear long pants, long shirts, long socks, and even gloves if you are going to be rooting around.  These clothes should be immediately washed when you're done.

It is a lovely, rich green in summer, and, like most deciduous plants, poison ivy changes color, lovely colors, in autumn.

Getting rid of poison ivy is almost impossible and it's a job that should be undertaken with great care.  There are businesses that will come and do the dirty work for you.  I am not recommending anyone in particular and have no idea how effective these businesses are, but this link goes to a company in the Philadelphia area that was on National Public Radio's show, YOU BET YOUR GARDEN.

You can spray.  There are systemic plant killers specifically made to do away with poison ivy and poison oak.

You can pull and dig and sweat and get sore muscles - just be SURE you wash hard and thoroughly immediately after and do the same for all your clothes.  Leave the pulled plants and parts in a pile where they can rot and return to earth without being a danger to people.  Drench things in alcohol for a first washing if you can stand it.  Here is a magnificent blog post I found - you'll love it!

People tend to forget that garden tools pick up the oil, too, and it remains on them just like it stays on you and your clothes.  If you can, wash them in alcohol or a degreaser to remove any oils.

If you do get the rash, here are a few suggestions:

1)  When you take your bath or shower (after the initial cool wash), use hot water.  This makes you itch horribly for a short time than, ahhhhhh, relief.  This happens because the hot water makes your body create histamines (the stuff that makes you itch) and it uses up the available supply.  Then, for a time, you have very few histamines.  Some people like this; I tried it and wasn't terribly impressed.  My opinion is to use the anti-itch commercial preparations you find in your local pharmacy.  Ask the pharmacist about what is best for you to use.  

The American Academy of Dermatology has a short but comprehensive write up that includes the warning below.

If you have any of the following, go to the emergency room right away:

  • You have trouble breathing or swallowing.
  • The rash covers most of your body.
  • You have many rashes or blisters.
  • You experience swelling, especially if an eyelid swells shut.
  • The rash develops anywhere on your face or genitals.
  • Much of your skin itches, or nothing seems to ease the itch.

People will also tell you not to scratch - good luck with that!

Summer is for fun and frolic.  Learn what poison ivy and poison oak look like and take steps to avoid them.  

Wishing you a wonderful week!  Come back again:>)