Watch out for urushiol, y’all
Back in the 1970s Pickens resident Andy Thompson’s summer took a turn for the worse when he failed to identify a swath of poison ivy.
“I was a camp counselor and we were playing these games where we’d hide and I laid in a patch of the stuff for probably 20 or 30 minutes,” he said. “Then a day or so later we were burning off some materials and apparently there was some poison ivy in there and smoke got in my eyes and they ended up being nearly swollen shut. I had to get a series of shots to get it to go away. That was the worst case I’ve ever had.”
A nasty case of poison ivy can put a serious damper on your summer – and with WebMD reporting that 85 percent of Americans will develop an allergic reaction if they come in contact with poison ivy you’ll want to know how to identify it and stay the *bleep* away - or if you find yourself intentionally wallowing around in a patch, you’ll want to know how to get rid of the rash quickly.
The unholy trinity
Poison ivy contains urushiol, the rash-inducing oil also found in poison oak and poison sumac (incidentally urushiol is also found in mango rinds and cashew shells, which is why cashews are never sold shell-on). Because urushiol is found in all three plants, people who are allergic to poison ivy are likely to have a reaction to its infamous counterparts.
Poison oak and poison sumac do grow in Georgia, but poison ivy is much more common.
Pickens’ UGA Extension Associate Larry Brogdon says poison ivy tends to creep up in that shady border between your yard and the woods.
“Poison ivy will grow at the interface between your maintenance zone and your woodland zone,” he said. “They like partial shade so they proliferate in the sun border.”
Brogdon also said poison ivy seeds are a favorite of birds, which eat and spread them, helping the plant proliferate.
And unfortunately, once poison ivy’s there it’s very difficult to get rid of.
“It’s very hardy plant,” he said. “You can cut down weeds and it’s the first thing that will come back up in a lot of cases.”
First line of defense
Proper identification is the best protection against poison ivy – but keep in mind there are several imposters that can throw people off course.
Remember Thompson, the camp counselor? Fast-forward a few decades you’d find him teaching about poison ivy awareness through the Red Cross’ Summer Safety classes – and he agrees that proper identification is crucial.
“While I worked for the Red Cross one of the main things is we’d teach people how to identify the plant first, because you’d find that people didn’t really know what it looked like.”
As the popular children’s poem (“Leaves of three, let them be!”) has cautioned since the 40s, poison ivy has three leaves. It can grow on the ground and - being a woody vine - can grow up trees and shrubs, too. People commonly mistake Virginia Creeper and Box Elder for the menace plant - and many people mistake poison oak for poison ivy.
Unfortunately poison ivy leaves can vary in shape, which sometimes confuses people trying to identify the plant. Leaves can be elliptical to egg-shaped and can have smooth, toothed or lobed edges. These variations can even occur on the same plant. The upper leaf is smooth and the lower leaf has hairs growing on it. The leaf has a pointed tip.
In the eastern U.S., poison oak grows as a shrub no more than three-feet tall. The leaves have a glossy top and velvety, matte lower side. Poison oak also has rounded lobes.
Poison sumac grows as a tall shrub or tree, with seven to 13 leaflets on each leaf. It grows in standing water.
Obviously don’t touch poison ivy if you see it, and try to create a barrier between you and it if you know it might be lurking nearby.
Barriers could include long-sleeve shirts or pants, or over-the-counter products such as IvyBlock that you apply before heading outside. Also remember that pets can pick up the oil and transfer it to you, so be sure to wipe them off when they come inside - then wash the towel because urushiol can remain active for years on clothes and other items.
Crap. I touched it.
If you accidentally touch poison ivy you need to try and wash the oil off because urushiol doesn’t bond to your skin immediately - just don’t use hot water because it will open your pores and let the oil in faster.
“It is possible to get the oil off but you have to be quick,” said Julia Miller, P.A. of Georgia Mountain Dermatology. “We recommend soap and water and be sure to wash clothing items.”
A product called Tecnu (developed in the 60s to remove radioactive fallout from skin), has proven effective in reducing the chances the urushiol will bond to your skin. You can also use this product to remove the oil from clothing, shoes, gardening tools and other items thought to be contaminated.
Rubbing alcohol can be used in a pinch, so keep some handy if you’re out in the woods and put in on the exposed site after contact with the plant. .
And remember you don’t just have to touch the leaves to pick up the oil. The stems, roots and all the plant’s other bits can release the nefarious juice too - even in the dead of winter. The poison ivy can also release urushiol into the air if it’s burned, so be sure to closely inspect any wood or other materials before throwing them in the fire. You can get very sick if airborne urushiol gets into your eyes or mouth, or touches your skin.
“People shouldn’t be burning this time of year anyway,” said the extension office associate, “but there’s a good chance trees are going to have poison ivy on it.”
If you don’t wash off the oil in time you’ll likely see a rash flare up within 12 to 48 hours of exposure. This rash typically lasts from two to three weeks and can be mild or severe, depending on the person.
To see a sample of the varying degrees of severity a poison ivy breakout check out the “Skin Rash Hall of Fame” at www.poison-ivy.com (while you’re there maybe look at the identification posters and quirky poison ivy t-shirts for sale.)
If the outbreak is severe enough go to doctor.
“People should come in if the rash continues to spread, if swelling occurs, or if there are more serious allergic reactions on a large part of your body,” said Miller of the dermatology office.
She also said patients who have mild cases will be treated with a topical steroid. Patients with more extreme cases will be treated with either a steroid shot or oral steroid medication.
“Patients usually experience relief in a couple of days with the cream,” Miller said, “and in a couple of hours with the shot. With summer here we’re seeing more cases, and we’ve actually had a lot of cases of urushiol exposure with people eating mangos who weren’t sure why they had a rash.”
Miller also said that a person’s sensitivity to urushiol can change as they get older.
“People can develop an increased sensitivity over time,” she said, “and people can lose sensitivity over time.”
Miller said over-the-counter medications can help, too. Calamine lotion has been a go-to for years and can relieve the itch, but hydrocortisone and antihistamines can also prove helpful.
Beyond these treatments there are several natural antidotes that some say help as well:
Super hot shower – Turn the water as hot as you can stand it and the heat will pull the histamines away from your skin temporarily, sometimes for hours.
Baking soda – Apply a mixture of water and baking soda to the site a few times a day.
White vinegar – Put on a cotton ball and apply to the rash.
No touchy! – Try really hard not to scratch the affected area. While the rash isn’t contagious if you scratch it (only the urushiol oil can create the rash) you can create an infection.
Jewelweed – (also known as the touch-me-not) is common in the eastern U.S. Take the plant, crush it to release its juice and rub it on the rash. You can also make a salve out of the plant and apply it to the rash.
Other suggested natural remedies include banana peels, a paste made from white potatoes, aloe vera, an oatmeal bath and herbal topicals like plantain, oak bark, rhubarb leaves and many others.
We’re definitely not recommending you try this method but some people swear eating budding leaves off a poison ivy plant creates immunity.
The author of the article “Everything you wanted to know about poison ivy but were afraid to touch!” says he ingests a newly opened leaflet once a week for seven to nine weeks and develops a seasonal immunity.
Don’t believe it? View the entire article at medicinebow.net where he reminisces about his first time ingesting a leaf.
If you’re not quite ready to take your personal urushiol defense protocol to that level, take the time to learn how to identify poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac and be prepared to take appropriate steps if you’re exposed.