I 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.