February 20, 2020

Neahring: Hazards of poison ivy

I like summertime. Even though I haven’t been a student for several decades, I still think of summer as break time, a chance to kick back, enjoy the sunshine and relax a little. If it wasn’t for that pesky part-time job and full-time motherhood thing, I could really do some serious lounging.

Spending time outdoors in the warm weather is a great way to unwind, but a person has to beware of dangerous flora and fauna lurking around. Actually, aside from a few disgruntled groundhogs, the fauna in our yard isn’t all that deadly, but the flora is potentially fraught with peril. I don’t mean large, carnivorous shrubbery that devours people, (although I saw that once in a science fiction movie, and I believe it could totally happen), but the more insidious, itchy kind of danger you get from plants like poison ivy.

Poison ivy, whose scientific name is Toxico radicans, has been around for a long time. It was first discovered and named in America by Captain John Smith, the famous 17th century explorer and friend of Pocahontas. Poison ivy and its equally treacherous cousins, poison oak and poison sumac, are found throughout most of the United States and cause an itchy rash following contact. Most people are susceptible to poison ivy, although about 15 percent of the population is not sensitive to the effects of the plant and does not get a rash.

The rash of poison ivy is caused by the plant oil urushiol, found in all parts of the plant including leaves, stem, and roots. Your child may develop symptoms through direct contact with the oils on the plant itself, or by touching a contaminated object such as clothes or shoes. The plant oils can remain on objects and retain potency for many years. Pets can carry the plant oils on their fur, although they do not get the rash. Burning poison ivy releases the oils into the air, and the particles may travel airborne to the skin or be inhaled. Touching another person with poison ivy does not typically transmit the rash, since the plant oils are quickly absorbed into human skin on initial contact.

The poison ivy rash is red and itchy, often with blisters in a straight line. The reaction may not appear for several hours to days after exposure to the plant oil. The rash is not contagious, but can be spread from place to place on a child by residual plant oil under his fingernails when he scratches.

If your child has been exposed to poison ivy, wash the area with warm soapy water as soon as possible to remove the plant oils before they are absorbed into the skin. Water that is too hot may open the pores, allowing for increased absorption. Apply a cool compress or an ice cube to relieve itching and swelling. Oatmeal-based bath products and lotions (like Aveeno) and oral antihistamines (Benadryl) can be helpful for symptoms as well.

Calamine lotion, a combination of zinc oxide and iron oxide, has been used to treat the itch of poison ivy since the 19th century, but it can be quite drying for some children with sensitive skin. Over-the-counter 1 percent hydrocortisone cream can be used in mild cases, and your doctor can order a stronger prescription steroid cream or ointment if necessary.

While most cases of poison ivy go away on their own within two weeks, you should call your doctor if your child’s rash is particularly extensive, extreme or appears infected. Significant lesions on the face, especially around the eyes, may warrant a visit as well. Your doctor may prescribe oral steroids (or occasionally, a steroid injection) to relieve inflammation. Topical or oral antibiotics are indicated for a rash that has become infected, usually through repeated scratching.

An individual’s sensitivity to poison ivy can change from season to season, so even a highly susceptible person may become less responsive to the plant oils over time. In the interim, it might be best to stay away from foliage with leaves of three and avoid any shrubbery with a shady attitude.


Neahring: Hazards of poison ivy

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