Don't Get Fooled by Poison Ivy
If you think you know what poison ivy looks like, think again. Poison ivy can take the form of a vine, shrub or ground cover. It has leaves that are shiny and leaves that are dull. Its edges can be smoothed or notched.
So how can it be recognized and avoided? The old phrase “leaves of three,” let it be” is a good way to do it, says Lou Paradise, president and chief of research of Topical BioMedics, Inc., makers of Topricin. And if the berries are white, we should “take flight.” That’s true whether you’re hiking in the woods or spending some time in your yard.
Poison ivy tops the list of plants to avoid, Paradise says, because it contains urushiol, an oily resin that binds to the skin on contact and may result in itching, burning skin eruptions. This rash-causing poison ivy sap is a clear liquid found in the plant’s leaves and the roots.
Urushiol oil is extremely potent, and only one nanogram (billionth of a gram) is needed to cause a rash, Paradise says. Even if you’ve never broken out you cannot assume you are immune; in fact, the more often you are exposed to urushiol, the more likely it is that you will break out. About 90% of the population develops an allergy to it.
What’s more, urushiol oil remains active for several years, so even handling dead leaves or vines can cause a reaction. In addition, oil transferred from the plant to other objects—gardening tools or an article of clothing—can cause the rash when it comes in contact with human skin.
(It’s also possible to get poison ivy from your pet. The primary danger to the pets themselves is ingesting the plant; if that happens, go to a vet immediately or call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control line at 888-426-4435. Luckily, pets can’t “get” poison ivy, according to the company Pet Veterinary Insurance, because their coats are usually too long for the oil to reach their skin.To be on the safe side, Paradise says, bathe your dog or cat after exposure. Use thick rubber gloves, not latex.)
To prevent poison ivy, Paradise recommends that when going on a hike or walking through a wooded area, you minimize the possibility of exposure by wearing long pants, a shirt with long sleeves, booths and gloves. The same is true if you’re cutting down trees or mowing or removing brush. If you stay at a campsite, give it a once-over so you’re aware of any hazards. Look around any campsite.
Prior to any outdoor activity, it can also help to apply a cream or lotion that creates a barrier on the skin.
If you get poison ivy, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) suggests that you:
Rinse your skin with lukewarm, soapy water – ideally, immediately after touching.
Wash your clothing, even down to your bootlaces, Paradise says, and use bleach if possible. The oil can stick to clothing, and if that touches your skin, can cause another rash.
Wash everything that may have the oil on its surface. Besides clothing, Paradise and the AAD say, the oil can stick to gardening tools, golf clubs and leashes. Wash with warm, soapy water.
Do not scratch, the AAD says. Scratching can cause an infection.
Leave blisters alone. If they open, don’t remove the overlying skin, because that skin can protect the wound beneath.
Take short, lukewarm baths in a colloidal oatmeal preparation that you can buy at a drugstore. You can also add a cup of baking soda to a bath. Short, cool showers can help as well.
Consider applying calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream. But talk to your doctor before applying an antihistamine cream, because that can actually worsen the rash.
Poison ivy can’t always be handled with self-care, though. Paradise says that symptoms requiring immediate medical attention include trouble breathing or swallowing; many rashes/blisters or a rash that covers most of the body; a rash on the genitals; swelling, especially of the eyelid.