Yep, poison ivy, that favored nemesis of disc golfers, animal lovers, and outdoor enthusiasts everywhere in North America and Canada; more specifically, those of us located in North America, the Canadian Maritime provinces, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, and all U.S. states east of the Rocky Mountains (also in some of the mountainous areas of Mexico).
US Regions of Poison Ivy
For the “nerds” out there, it’s formal name is: Toxicoden radicans, but there won’t be a test later, so you can just use that for your next trivia night or you can just keep using the name that is commonly stated after an encounter “that [expletive] poison ivy!”
THE BASICS, THE MYTHS, and THE FACTS…
Poison Ivy exposure and blistering [Photo credit Larsonja]
BASICS: Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac can be found in the Central Texas region. They are all plants and they can cause a temporary, irritating allergic rash when they come in contact with your skin. All three plants contain a plant oil called urushiol (pronounced yoo-ROO-shee-all) that triggers the bodies rash-like symptoms.
The oil will penetrate the skin at the thinnest layers first. Example, your hands may not get the rash as soon as the bottom of your feet. The outside of your arm may not get the rash as fast as the inside parts of your arm, etc. since they will absorb at different rates.
Additionally, you can get it year round. If you are pulling roots in the Winter, yes, you can get the rash then as well since the roots contain the oil that is just as effective.
MYTH: After the first time, I can’t get poison ivy again
FACT: Not everyone reacts to poison ivy when they first come in contact with it (or other exposures), but some can become more sensitized each contact thereafter and may react more severely. Additionally, the reaction may last longer.
MYTH: Dead poison ivy plants are no longer toxic.
FACT: Urushiol remains active for up to five years. Always use proper protection when handling dead plants or roots that look like poison ivy.
MYTH: The poison ivy rash is “contagious.”
Poison Ivy vine [photo credit: Melissa MB Wilkins]
The rash itself
is a reaction to urushiol. The rash cannot pass from person to person
after the urushiol binds or has been removed. If there is remaining oil, THAT is what can cause it to spread.
MYTH: My dog/cat got a poison ivy rash.
FACT: Dogs and cats do not appear to be sensitive to the effects of urushiol like many humans are. The animals hair/coat provides protection. That’s the good news, but the bad news is they CAN TRANSMIT the urushiol from their hair/coats to their owners and others, as well as, other surfaces (furniture, clothing, vehicle seats, etc.). Remember, Urushiol remains active for up to five years so use caution for pets that roam outside. Wear gloves and bathe your pet well to reduce contamination with this oil. [Note: If your animal has a rash please look for other causes]
WHAT DO THE PLANTS (Ivy, Oak, Sumac) LOOK LIKE?
Poison ivy is the most common plant of the three. It leaves have three or five serrated-edge, pointed leaflets. The leaves can be bright colors in the fall, turning yellow and then red. Poison ivy grows as a vine or free-standing plant.
Try to remember: “Leaves of Three, Leave It Be.”
Poison Ivy Tree Creepers [Photo credit: Jonathan Sachs 2002]
Poison Oak has three oak-like leaves and grows as a low shrub. It produces whitish flowers from August to November that dry and can remain for many months. In the fall, the leaves assume bright colors, turning yellow and then red.
Try to remember: “Longer Middle Stem, Don’t Touch Them”
Poison Sumac has seven to 13 staggered leaflets with one on the tip of the plant and grows as a shrub or small tree. Poison sumac is distinguished from nonpoisonous sumac by the location of its fruit, it grows between the leaf and the branch as opposed to the ends of the branches.
Try to remember: “Hairy Vine, No Friend of Mine”
HOW DID I GET IT ON ME?
Transmission can occur many of the obvious ways…
1) Directly contacting with the plant
2) Indirectly contacting the oils when you touch pets, gardening tools, sports equipment, or other objects that had direct contact with the plant
3) Airborne contact from burning these plants, which releases particles of urushiol into the air that can penetrate the skin, eyes, nose, throat, or respiratory system.
GREAT! I HAVE IT ON ME… NOW WHAT?
*NOTE* For serious cases or concerns you should ALWAYS seek medical attention. In some extreme cases, a reaction can progress to anaphylaxis.
Poison Ivy on ground [Photo Credit SWMNPoliSciProject]
AT EXPOSURE (This is where the important steps begin)
- Wash it off your skin right away using LOTS of cold water, DO NOT take a bath/shower since you could expose more of your body to the oil. Warm water opens your pores and increases the chance for it to be absorbed.
- Use plenty of soap when washing the affected area.
- Vinegar or Sterilizing Alcohol are alternatives that offer some help after exposure
- You can use commercial brands Tecnu Extreme or Zanfel cleanser
- Some research indicates that washing with alcohol may help remove the oil. This may work up to 1/2 hour after the exposure.After that the oil probably has soaked in and you can’t remove it.
- If exposed on the face, wash AWAY from your eyes, mouth, nasal and ear openings.
UPON EXPOSURE (The oil has been absorbed)
Roadside poison ivy [photo credit Jaknouse]
If you happen to be so unlucky to get exposed to the oils from the plants listed above, you can expect a few things and I will try and highlight them for you.
- A reaction can appear within hours of touching the plant or as late as 5 days later
- Gentle to severe itching develops into reddish colored inflammation or some non-colored bumps that then evolve into blistering
- Blisters that may “weep” (leak fluid) and later crust over
- The affected area will become red and swollen
FIRST AID AND TREATMENTS
- First and important, do not scratch the blisters. Bacteria from under your fingernails can get into the blisters and cause an infection.
- In most situations you can treat the rash on your own with OTC items like calamine lotion.
- Cold compresses, for 15 to 30 minutes intervals, several times a day help with itching and blistering (cool showers can be effective).
- With a severe rash or condition that requires medical attention, a doctor could recommend/prescribe oral prednisone or another corticosteroid.
- apply topical OTC skin protectants, such as zinc acetate, zinc carbonate, zinc oxide, and calamine dry the oozing and weeping of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac.
- Use protectants such as baking soda or colloidal oatmeal relieve minor irritation and itching.
- Aluminum acetate is an astringent that relieves rash. This can even be found in some common aerosol deodorants.
- Take short hot baths to ease the itching (remember, do this ONLY after it has become a rash and DO NOT confuse it with the initial contact wash of cold/soap water)
- Take antihistamine pills. The pills can help reduce itching, but use caution. Do NOT apply antihistamine to your skin, this could worsen the rash and the itch.
Overall, the rash and irritation can generally last as long as 3 weeks, the average is 1-2 weeks.
If you should experience any of the following conditions you MUST seek medical advice immediately:
- if you have a temperature over 100 F
- if there is pus, soft yellow scabs, or tenderness on the rash
- if the itching gets worse or keeps you awake at night
- if the rash spreads to your eyes, mouth, genital area, or covers more than one-fourth of your skin area
- if the rash is not improving within a few weeks
IMPORTANT THINGS TO REMEMBER
Poison Ivy bush [photo credit: credit Jonathan Sachs 2002]
- Wash exposed clothing
- Wash exposed surfaces and items (discs, chairs, bags, tools, etc.)
- Wash exposed pets and animals
- If you think you are exposed, keep exposed areas that may contain oil AWAY from your genitals, infants, eyes, nose, mouth
PROTECTION, TIPS, AND INFORMATION
- Wear protective clothing around exposure situations (long sleeve, gloves, etc.)
- Avoid the plants whenever you can
- Use a skin-care product called an “Ivy Block Barrier.” This helps prevent the skin from absorbing the urushiol oil, which causes the rash. Products of this type usually contain bentoquatam. The can products be purchased OTC without a prescription. Always apply the block BEFORE going outdoors.
- Other tips and information about barrier lotions for protection can be located here.
Remember these three mnemonics:
- “Leaves of Three, Leave It Be”
- “Longer Middle Stem, Don’t Touch Them”
- “Hairy Vine, No Friend of Mine”
- Only 15% of the population has NO allergic reaction to the oils, while 85% does with varying degrees
- If all this reading wore you out, how about a video? Great! You can find a video here that essentially highlights much of the information I provided you.
BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!
[photo credit: healthyhorns.utexas.edu]
(Bonus information and factoids that you may not care about)
Wait? What? There’s MORE information? Yes, there is a little bit more for you. I would rather you have something to mumble about under your breath as you are laid up complaining about coming into contact with Toxicoden radicans
. (see how I threw that in there again)
Poison Ivy is NOT an “ivy” and Poison Oak is NOT an “oak“
They are actually both members of the cashew family
. Now chew on that information and stump your friends on trivia night.
Goats are a Toxicoden radicans worst nightmare (okay, third and last time that I threw that in there…promise)
- Goats can eat poison ivy with no ill effects and can do so in very large amounts while saving the eco-system from harmful equipment/chemical damage. Yes, I have a goat video
for you and you can see them eat what they love to eat.
WHEW…. ANYTHING ELSE TO SAY?
Nope, nothing else to say. I hope you would all have a great fun and safe time in the outdoors and go away with some of the information that can help ease your pains of being exposed.
We can never avoid the poison ivy, we all encounter it at one point, but the more we know to look for it will help us, our kids, and everyone else. Don’t live your outdoor time in fear, live it with FUN!
Frisbee and Goats (Abby) are best friends [photo credit: everydayruralty.com]
For additional links, factoids, posters, and handouts check out: poison-ivy.org
Want to test your knowledge on identifying Poison Ivy? Click Here (Section 11)