November 22, 2019

Personal Health: Steering Clear of Poison Ivy

Alexa Grace
Personal Health
Personal Health

Jane Brody on health and aging.

I was once among those who claim, “I could walk through a field of poison ivy and not get it.” One day I learned otherwise: On a hike, I needed to relieve myself in the great outdoors and ended up with an impossibly itchy, blistering rash on a most delicate body part.

Too late I learned that you can develop an allergic reaction to poison ivy after previously uneventful exposures, which induce a sensitivity to the plant’s oily sap, urushiol. Once sensitized, your skin is likely to react to every subsequent exposure. Even people repeatedly exposed who appear to be immune may react to high concentrations of the toxin.

I also learned not to rely on the popular warning, “Leaves of three, let them be,” to alert me to the presence of Toxicodendron radicans, as the poison ivy plant is aptly called by botanists. It is not just the leaves that can provoke a reaction; the stems, roots, flowers and berries all contain urushiol.

Touching or brushing against any of these plant parts, even if they are dead, can cause a reaction. The sap is hardy and can cause a rash in the dead of winter, or even a year after contaminating clothing or shoes that are not thoroughly cleaned.

Poison oak.iStockPoison oak.
Poison sumac.Zoran Ivanovich/The New York TimesPoison sumac.
Poison ivy.iStockPoison ivy.

Urushiol shows up elsewhere, including in the skin of mangoes (and the leaves and bark of the mango tree), as I discovered when I ate a mango still in the rind and ended up with a blistering rash on my mouth. Cashew shells also have the toxin, which is why cashews are sold shelled and processed (either roasted or in the case of “raw” cashews, steamed) at a temperature high enough to destroy urushiol. Poison ivy is not the only problem plant one might encounter while hiking, camping or simply strolling in the countryside. T. radicans has two relatives, poison oak and poison sumac, that don’t always form the classic clusters but are equally toxic troublemakers.

Myths and misconceptions abound about these three plants and the reactions they can cause. Knowing the facts can help to spare you and your family considerable distress.

First, learn to recognize the plants in their various growth patterns. While poison ivy is most often encountered as a small ground plant, it also grows as a shrub and vine. The vines, which turn bright red in fall, were once used to adorn buildings in England.

Poison oak, which has compound leaves made up of three (or sometimes five) leaflets, usually grows as a shrub, but will form a vine in the Western states.

Poison sumac, which grows as a tall shrub or small tree, produces leaves with rows of paired leaflets and a single leaflet at the end. It likes a wet habitat, growing in peat bogs in the Northeast and Midwest and swamps in the Southeast.

Urushiol can penetrate cloth. Although long sleeves, pants and gloves can reduce the risk of exposure, they cannot guarantee protection. Even rubber gloves can be breached. If you must handle the plants or are likely to contact poison ivy when gardening, wear vinyl gloves.

You don’t have to touch the plant directly to react to urushiol. Gardening tools, sporting equipment, even a pet that has been in a patch of poison ivy — all can cause a reaction. My brother, who has been sensitive to urushiol since childhood, once developed the rash on his arm after retrieving a baseball that had rolled through poison ivy.

Before possible exposure, use an over-the-counter skin-care product containing bentoquatam (IvyBlock) to prevent or reduce absorption of urushiol. The combination of this barrier product and protective clothing is your best defense against an inadvertent encounter.

But there is no scientific evidence that jewelweed, feverfew, plantain or other herbal remedies prevent or cure a urushiol-induced rash.

Nor do you become immune to urushiol through repeated exposures to small amounts. Quite the opposite. There is no way to desensitize a person to urushiol as there is with pollen and peanut allergies. Eating mangoes or cashews will not work.

Contrary to popular belief, a poison ivy rash is not contagious. It cannot be spread by oozing blisters, or by scratching or touching the rash. Only direct contact with urushiol causes a reaction. (Scratching can result in an infection, however.)

The rash can appear on different parts of the body at various times. This may happen because the parts were exposed at different times, or because areas with thicker skin are less easily penetrated by the oil. The delicate skin of the genital and perianal areas, for example, is more easily breached than tougher skin on the hands.

Repeated tilling or mowing can eventually kill poison ivy plants, as can repeated applications of an herbicide like Roundup. The latter should be applied with serious caution and only on a warm, sunny day with little or no wind when the plants are actively growing.

If you are highly allergic, or wary of applying herbicides, clearing your property of the plants may be best left to a professional. While goats are said to have a hearty appetite for poison ivy plants, they may eat everything else in the yard, too.

Never try to burn a poison plant. Burning releases the toxin, which may land on skin or, worse, be inhaled and cause a serious internal reaction.

Should you contact a urushiol-containing plant, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends washing your skin immediately. Lukewarm, soapy water is best, but even plain water can limit exposure to the sap. Take care in removing contaminated clothing, and wash it separately as soon as possible.

You can relieve a rash by applying cool compresses with an astringent like Burow’s solution, soaking the affected area in colloidal oatmeal, or using calamine lotion; all are sold over the counter. Do not apply products containing a topical antihistamine, like Benadryl, which can cause a sensitivity reaction that makes matters worse.

Severe reactions may require medically prescribed treatment with an oral corticosteroid like prednisone.

A version of this article appears in print on 06/17/2014, on page D7 of the NewYork edition with the headline: Steering Clear of Poison Ivy.

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Personal Health: Steering Clear of Poison Ivy

poison ivy • The itchiest plant in the forest

poison ivy • The itchiest plant in the forest – Tri-County Times: News For Fenton, Linden, Holly MI

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poison ivy • The itchiest plant in the forest

Working in the yard? Beware of poison ivy

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By Ed Pfeifer

Published: Wednesday, May 29, 2013, 8:11 p.m.

May 29, 2013

Mowing, trimming, pruning, mulching. The homeowner’s June routine is a sun-dappled foray into the great outdoors and usually one of the most enjoyable times of the year.

Some of us though, after performing our outdoor labor, will begin to itch. We will develop a rash and then we will realize that the low growing vine in the corner of the yard is poison ivy. Uh-oh!

Poison ivy is one of this region’s native vines and although it prefers some areas over others, it may be found just about anywhere there is dirt.

Simply touching it results in the transference of urushiol (u-roo-she-all), an odorless, colorless oil that causes skin irritation in some 85-percent of those who contact it. Urushiol rashes can be brutal, sometimes resulting in blisters and weeks of itching and irritation.

So, what to do? Well our first line of defense against is preventing contact through proper identification.

Since poison ivy can take on the form of a woody vine, a soft vine or even a shrub, and since the leaves can be rounded, toothed or lobed, it may be difficult to recognize.

But its three leaf pattern is its giveaway characteristic. So to be safe, follow the old saying “leaves of three, let it be”.

Great photos of poison ivy are available online and studying those photos is a good idea.

The most effective treatments for killing this annual nuisance are synthetic liquids labeled as poison ivy or tough brush killer.

They normally contain a chemical called glyphosate, which will kill the plant to the root and not have any sterilizing effect on the soil. Never pull or cut poison ivy. The pieces of root left behind will sprout into new plants creating the potential for even more.

Additionally, contacting poison ivy, even with gloves, is not advisable and trimming or mowing will make airborne the dreaded urushiol.

For those of you who like to think you are “immune” to urushiol — and we’ve all heard these folks who say “I don’t get poison ivy” — I would caution you not be so bold.

Increased contact with the stuff will likely decrease your resistance and then one day you will be scratching the rash you thought you would never get. Mother Nature has a way of putting us in our place does she not?

For those of you who do get the rash, there is great news from deep in the Ozark mountains. That’s where a polite man named Charles Baker is cooking up and shipping out batches of his grandmother’s recipe for Poison Ivy Soap.

Poison Ivy Soap is a simple all natural product designed to stop the itch and remove the urushiol from the victim’s skin. It contains a large quantity of jewel weed, a common plant long known for itch neutralizing ability. It really does work and it contains no harsh chemicals or perfumes — desirable qualities all.

It’s true that tending to your home, yard and garden has its hazards and pitfalls. Nobody ever said being a do-it-yourselfer was for wimps. But with a little forethought, poison ivy can be avoided, with a bit of effort it can be destroyed and when all else fails, a bar of soap, laden with some of nature’s own best stuff, can calm its ill effects.

Ed Pfeifer is a freelance writer with Trib Total Media and the owner of Pfeifer Hardware Inc., 300 Marshall Way, Mars. If you have questions, call the store at 724-625-9090.

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