By Nick Simonson
In early summer, it lurks on the edges of meadows, right next to that perfect deer stand site. It hides among the grasses along the trail which traces a favorite river or stream. Its red stems and green leaves surround the perfect backwater pond. It is poison ivy, and for the unaware outdoorsman, it can make for an itchy start to the season when exploring new summer waters or getting set for fall hunts.
This three-leaved plant, found throughout much of the North American continent, affects hundreds of thousands of people each year. Along with poison oak and poison sumac, the unholy triumvirate produces a red rash marked by itchy streaks, bumps, pustules and blisters that continuously ooze fluid as the body attempts to rid itself of the primary culprit – a chemical called urushiol.
Urushiol is a colorless oil which is classified as an allergen. The chemical creates an allergic reaction in which it over-stimulates the body’s immune system to fight what in reality is a harmless substance. Certain individuals exhibit no signs of reaction to this compound, while others exhibit life-threatening symptoms when exposed to the oil of the poison ivy plant. Most develop a rash at the immediate contact point and other areas that are exposed to the chemical.
Much of this exposure results from direct contact with the leaves, and stems of the plant, but this type of contact is not the only way urushiol is transferred from plant to person. Clothing, sporting equipment, such as fishing rods or golf clubs, and garden tools can transfer the oil once they come in contact with the plant. Pets also contribute to the problem. If a cat or dog has been outside in an area where these plants are present, there is a good chance the urushiol is on the animal’s fur. Since animals do not react to the plant as humans do, the oil in the fur can lead to more blistering on a person, despite no visible warning on the animal. The spread of the rash results from contact with the chemical which causes it, so continued outbreaks mean that it is likely that the victim has made contact with an object still containing urushiol, such as unwashed clothes or boots worn on the initial trip where first exposure occurred.
There are ways to prevent the unwelcome summertime ailment of contact dermatitis, the rash which poison ivy causes. The first is to identify the poisonous plants in the immediate areas frequented in the outdoors. The statement “Leaves of three – let it be” is a good rule of thumb. Poison ivy has three broad leaves and may come in a variety of configurations such as a vine, shrub or solitary plant. Poison oak is similar in appearance with at least three small oak-leaf shaped leaflets. Along with the seven-leafed poison sumac plant, this troublesome trio can be found most often in shaded or woody areas across the United States.
Second, preventing direct contact with the plant is important in arresting development of the rash. Wear long sleeved shirts, jeans, and protective gloves made from latex when working around areas near the plants. Gloves made of cloth won’t cut it and can trap and transfer the oil to hands and forearms.
Next, there are many products on the market to help stop poison ivy before it starts. Creams, sprays and salves similar to sunscreen help prevent the urushiol from poison ivy from entering the skin. By applying this protective barrier before going out into the woods, a would-be victim can escape annoyance when coming in contact with the plants.
Finally, washing potentially affected areas, clothing and equipment in soap and water as soon as possible after suspected exposure will help eliminate most, if not all of the urushiol deposited on a person coming in contact with poison ivy. Use cold water to rinse the skin, as it causes the pores to constrict and force any oils up to the surface and minimize impact. Warm water does the opposite. By following these recommendations, a person can avoid scratching his head (or back, or arms) in frustration. Should the effects of these poison plants appear on the body, it is best to see a doctor to deal with the symptoms and the ensuing annoyance. Remember the best way to avoid the pain of poison ivy is being alert and prepared to encounter this common summer plant.
(Featured Photo: Leaves of three, let it be. Stay on the lookout while enjoying the outdoors this time of year, as poison ivy plants pop up in shady areas. Simonson Photo)