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January 19, 2018

Garden Variety: Tougher poison ivy

Can poison ivy really get any worse?

If you have ever had a reaction to the plant, just the inscribed memory of endless itching might make you doubtful that anything could rival it. For gardeners and outdoor enthusiasts who regularly encounter poison ivy, however, the rumors that the plant is becoming more abundant are starting to look true.

The news about poison ivy (Toxicodendron taxa) is more than rumor, but if you heard it from a friend, it would be easy to put it in a box with old wives’ tales and snake oils. Research at Duke University in the early 2000s started the discussion when the results of a six-year study on the relationship between poison ivy and elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide were released.

The bottom line from the report’s abstract reads: “Our results indicate that Toxicodendron taxa will become more abundant and more ‘toxic’ in the future, potentially affecting global forest dynamics and human health.”

In the study, when atmospheric carbon dioxide increased in a forest, poison ivy was able to photosynthesize better and use water more efficiently, making it grow faster and larger than it would otherwise. In addition, the urushiol (the oil responsible for skin irritation) produced by these plants was more allergenic than in plants at normal atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

Elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide is related to growth stimulation in other species of plants also, but the rate of increase in poison ivy is higher than most and will help the plant outcompete others as carbon dioxide levels increase.

Unfortunately, little can be done to stop poison ivy besides avoidance and controlling it on your own property. Learn to recognize the plant, characterized by compound leaves with three leaflets. Poison ivy can be a vine, a shrub or something that looks like a perennial groundcover with single leaves coming out of the ground. Along the Kansas River north of Lawrence, large patches of waist-high poison ivy are easy to find. By mid-to-late summer the leaves often have reddish spots on them that make them easier to recognize.

If you encounter poison ivy, avoid touching any part of the plant or contacting it with tools or clothing. Urushiol, the oil produced by the plant, can be carried on objects and cause a reaction later through indirect contact. Urushiol can also be inhaled if poison ivy plants are burned.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 80 to 90 percent of humans are allergic to urushiol, but allergies can develop for those who think they are immune. Urushiol reactions are characterized by itchy red bumps, patches and weeping blisters.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation. She is the host of “The Garden Show” and has been a gardener since childhood. Send your gardening questions and feedback to Lawrence Living@ljworld.com.

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Garden Variety: Tougher poison ivy

Pointers for preventing, treating poison ivy

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Itching to know more about poison ivy? It’s the most common allergy with two out of three people being allergic to it.

For most of us, the rash occurs after we’ve been exposed to poison ivy at least once before in our lives.

Bruce Chladny of K-State Extension in Wyandotte County reminds us that the old adage, “Leaves of three, let it be,” definitely holds true.

“Not to confuse it with the five leaves of Virginia creeper. When you look at the plant, there’s three leaflets and that means it’s not good to touch,” says Chladny.

The rash ia an allergic reaction to the oil in the plant.

“So when the oil comes from the plant onto your skin, it gets into your skin and your body has that allergic reaction. It could either be through exposure as you walk through the garden…could be from touching a tool or some sort of machinery or something like that that had been in an infested areas.  Or off of pets,” says Chladny.

If you think you’ve been exposed to poison ivy, use soap and cold water quickly to remove the oil from the skin. Chladny says it’s important to use cold water because it keeps the pores of the skin closed.

You can’t get poison ivy from another person’s blister fluid. But Chladny says if there’s residual oil on someone’s skin and you touch that, you could get a rash.

To show you how powerful the oil is, five hundred people could itch just from the oil covering the head of a pin.

So how do you treat poison ivy? An over-the counter corticosteroid cream, calamine lotion, a cool bath with oatmeal or cool wet compresses. You may also want to try an antihistimine such as Benedryl to help you sleep.

See your doctor if the rash is widespread or on your face, if the blisters are oozing badly, or if the rash isn’t better after a few weeks.

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Pointers for preventing, treating poison ivy

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