Gonna’ Need an Ocean

2 Aug

Treatment-For-Poison-Ivy jpgI haven’t had a reaction to poison ivy since I was a kid,  but last week I came down with a terrible case  on my right arm.  Now it’s covered with  dark red splotches that make it look  like I’ve been attacked by marauding zombies.  The hydrocortisone I put on it does little to  stop the itching,  but it does make my arm nice and greasy.  Benadryl and other antihistamines only make  me really sleepy and  dopier than usual.

When my wife Diane and I work in the yard,  she always wears protective clothing. I, on the other hand, have   been tempting fate by refusing to wear gloves  or long sleeves.  I thought that maybe I was part of that  minority of people   who don’t react to urushiol, the  chemical in the sap of the plant,  that causes all the trouble. It was sheer  arrogance— like those doctors I once read about,  who made others wear protective gear around contagious patients, but didn’t wear any  themselves,  because they  thought they were just too smart to  get infected.

Diane is sensitive to poison ivy and even with all of her precautions, she’s still  had a few outbreaks every year. For a while were quarantining our cat, Klaus, inside the house, because he was suspected of   bringing poison ivy in on his fur. He is always rolling around in something.

I blame our air conditioner for my outbreak. We were outside cleaning up some branches and  we pulled up some English ivy  vines   that were creeping into  the condenser housing.  The next day the air conditioner  didn’t work. I think I  got exposed when I was taking off the  metal cover in order to see if there was anything obviously wrong that I could fix.

Getting the cover off entailed laying down  in the surrounding  vegetation. Although I did put down a tarp, it wasn’t large enough to  cover all of it. Of course, I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt at the time.  The repairman later told us that the wire that  the thermostat wire  was a very fine one, that looks just like a vine and   we must have pulled it loose. This time I’ve learned my lesson. The next time we work in the yard I’ve  promised to cover up.

I still find   poison ivy hard to identify. Evidently the plant is very versatile and  grows  in several forms,  including  a ground cover, a climbing vine, and a shrub. I think we have all of these types and it seems like there has been even more of it in  the past few years.  In 2007  U.S. Agriculture Department botanist Lewis Ziska,   and his colleagues published   a study,   in Weed Science  which  concluded  that,  due to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, poison ivy plants are   getting larger, hardier, and   more toxic.   Ziska claims that over the last 50 years the growth rate has doubled.

Poison ivy has been irritating people for a long time. It  was given its current name  by Captain John Smith in 1609 in Jamestown.  Over the years people have developed a number of rhymes to help them  remember to avoid  this plant. These include jingles like:  “Leaflets three; let it be.”,  “Hairy vine, no friend of mine.” ,. “Side leaflets like mittens, will itch like the dickens.”, “Raggy rope, don’t be a dope!”, “One, two, three? Don’t touch me.”, “Berries white, run in fright”;  and “Red leaflets in the spring, is a dangerous thing.”.

According to  the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences at least 350,000 Americans  suffer from  urushiol-induced contact dermatitis each year. The number is even higher when  poison sumac and poison oak are included.  Urushiol is really potent stuff. Only 1  billionth of a gram is  needed to cause a rash.

The  poison ivy rash  which is characterized by redness, itching,  swelling, and blisters, usually develops within  a few hours  up to  a week from exposure. The rash can last anywhere   from one to six  weeks, depending on  its severity. Most people   become sensitized with repeated exposures to urushiol.  Dawn Davis, a dermatologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN  says, “The dermatitis gets worse each subsequent time.” She also says that a person’s  reactivity  tends to decline with age. Also people with compromised immune systems   may not react to  urushiol.  Age, previous exposures, immune system functioning, and heredity   all  play a role in how severe the reaction to poison ivy  will be.

Washing with soap and water or  alcohol within 15 to 30 minutes of exposure may help prevent a reaction.  Commercial poison ivy washes such as Zanfel, are  also available. Typical over the counter   treatments include,  Calamine lotion (zinc oxide  and ferric oxide),  hydrocortisone cream,  and  antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadyl).  Oatmeal baths and baking soda  may also help relive  the itching.  Scratching the rash is strongly discouraged   as this can lead  to secondary bacterial infections,  that usually have to be treated with antibiotics. Powerful steroids such as prednisone  may also be prescribed in severe cases.

Most people tough it out at home with over-the-counter remedies. Experts suggest, however,   that you  should see your doctor if : (1.) More than one-fourth of your skin is involved; (2.) You run a temperature over 100o F;  (3.)  There are any signs of infection; (4.) If it spreads to  the  eyes,   mouth, or  other sensitive areas; (5.) If the  itching is very severe and keeps you awake at night;  or (6) It does not show improvement within a few days.

Urushiol dermatitis  can also occur when you are  exposed to objects that have come in contact with poison ivy  like clothing, gardening  tools, camping equipment, and other objects.  Urushiol oil can  remain active for  years, so  even dead vines or last year’s jacket can still cause a reaction.    Logs covered with poison ivy vines can cause problems if  they are burned and the urushiol becomes airborne. If such smoke is inhaled a  rash can irritate the lining of the lungs, causing extreme pain and difficulty breathing.

Poison ivy is not considered to be contagious, in that it is not transmitted by   exposure to the blisters, rash, or fluid, which Diane still does not  believe. By the time   these symptoms appear the irritant oil has been absorbed  into the skin or washed away. Of course, the irritation can  be transmitted from person-to-person  in the earliest stage,  when   oil  is still  present on the skin.

Finally,  to protect yourself against   exposure,  the following steps are most often recommended  (1.) Routinely wash tools, work clothes, and gloves. (2.) Always wear long sleeves,  long pants, and gloves. (3.)  If  your  pet has been exposed, wash it thoroughly with pet shampoo while wearing rubber gloves, (4.) If you are extremely reactive consider using  IvyBlock,  an over-the-counter product that  provides a  barrier (like sun block) that prevents  the toxic oil from penetrating.  Use Roundup or other herbicide to eliminate poison ivy in high traffic areas. (7). Buy a  goat. They love to eat poison ivy, which has no detrimental effects on them.

All of this thinking about poison ivy has made me itchy,  even  in places where I don’t have a rash. I think I’ll take comedian Stephen Wright’s advice about what to do  if  you have poison ivy on the brain and think  about sandpaper.

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One Response to “Gonna’ Need an Ocean”

  1. Chris Grider August 2, 2013 at 4:29 pm #

    Great information for all of us! These articles are so enjoyable to read, I’m always learning something new and useful, and all with a bit of humor. Thanks Terry!

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