If you’ve had one allergic reaction from poison ivy, more will likely follow with each new exposure. For those of you yet to experience this misery, don’t gloat … your time may still be coming. My mother-in-law experienced her first allergic reaction to poison ivy this past week.
In fact, only 1 percent of the U.S. population is considered truly immune. You can’t get the allergic reaction to poison ivy on the first exposure. Although it may happen on the second encounter, most of the time, it is years of repeated, mild exposure that ultimately leads to that “first time” outbreak.
Poison ivy is the threat in Kansas. The threat is usually in untamed, semi-shaded areas. (If you’re traveling, poison oak is most common up and down the West Coast and Southeast. Poison sumac is in uninhabited swampy areas, primarily in the East.)
The active ingredient that leads to days or weeks of itching, oozing blisters is urushiol (pronounced u-ROO-she-ol). It’s in the sap of the plant. Simply brushing up against an intact plant won’t cause a reaction. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the plants are very fragile. The slightest abrasion from insects, animals or even the wind can release this toxic oil.
You must have direct contact with the oil to have an outbreak. But urushiol is a highly persistent oil. It can remain potent for years – even on dead plants! Although avoiding direct contact is a great first defense, it’s not a guarantee that you won’t still get it. Because the oil easily sticks to everything that touches it, this high mobility makes even couch potatoes vulnerable.
If you happen to handle a garden tool, a ball or toy or a pet that has made direct contact with the oil, you can get it too. Most animals, including cats and dogs, are not allergic to urushiol.
The first time I had a reaction to poison ivy, it was severe. So bad in fact, I ended up driving myself to the emergency room at 2 a.m. I’ve never been so miserable. They treated me with a steroid shot, a prescription and orders to make frequent applications of a drying agent until it went away. If you’ve had a reaction, you know what I’m talking about.
If you suspect exposure
If you suspect exposure, the oil can be removed from your skin if caught in time. The earlier you can cleanse the exposed area of urushiol, the better chance you have of avoiding an outbreak. But you better act fast. Urushiol can penetrate the skin in as little as five minutes.
Over-the-counter solvents such as Technu are effective first steps at removing the oils when liberal amounts are applied to the affected area. Even common rubbing alcohol is effective at stripping the oil when applied generously to the skin. Unfortunately, it’s very effective at removing your body’s protective layer as well. Any additional exposure the same day will enable the urushiol to penetrate your skin twice as fast.
As soon as possible, rinse your body thoroughly with water only. Then shower with soap and water. Clothes should be washed immediately in hot water, and any tools, shoes or equipment should be cleaned as well with rubbing alcohol. Be careful when handling these items, and wear gloves that can be disposed of after use.
If you get a rash
The first signs of an outbreak occur about four to 48 hours after exposure. Redness of the skin and swelling are the first symptoms, then come the blistering and itching. Severe cases, which include infection on more than 30 percent of the body or rashes on the face or genitals, are treated with oral prescription steroids. Otherwise, several over-the-counter products are designed to relieve itching and dry up the oozing blisters.
Some of the most common, readily available aids for treating the symptoms include corticosteroid creams such as hydrocortisone, Calamine lotion and antihistamines such as Benadryl. With a consistent treatment regime, the rash will typically clear up in about a week. Untreated, it will usually clear up on its own in about two to three weeks.
Eradicating poison ivy
The expression “leaves of three, leave them be” is good advice for poison ivy. It can appear as a woody shrub, a ground cover or a woody vine, which often looks like a fuzzy rope. Even though the plant always has three leaflets, the leaves can be toothed, incised, lobed or smooth. See the website poison-ivy.org for photos and quizzes to check your identification skills.
The fastest way to eliminate the poison ivy is to pull it out from the roots. Of course you will need to wear protective gloves as well as clothing that will cover as much of your skin as possible. Soak the entire area where the poison ivy is growing with water to make the soil soft. Use a shovel or fork to turn over the soil and pull out the roots. Discard the vines and roots in a large plastic garbage bag.
If manual extraction of these plants and vines is out of the question, there are effective herbicides. If the plant is in a shrub form, direct spray is most commonly used. For a woody vine climbing a tree, you may want to cut the plant off at the base and treat the sprouts after they emerge or treating the freshly cut stump directly. The cut stump treatment should be used only if directions for that are on the label of the herbicide that you’re using.
The most popular active ingredients in poison-ivy herbicides include glyphosate (in such products as Roundup or Kleeraway Grass & Weed Killer) or triclopyr (including Brush-B-Gon Poison Ivy Killer and Brush Killer Stump Killer). Mix these products as directed on the label. It may take more than one application to kill the entire plant.
Be sure to use as directed, spraying only on target and never during even the slightest wind. Herbicide drift can kill or severely harm non-targeted plants even a great distance away.
Lastly, never burn poison ivy. The oils can be carried in the smoke to harm anyone who breathes it, with the risk of it being carried into eyes, nasal passages, mouth and lungs!
Poison ivy myths
Scratching the rash does not cause it to spread. The urushiol oil that causes the itching is not contained in the fluid of the blister. Nor does the poison ivy rash spread through the bloodstream. It is only active where the oil penetrated the skin.
Poison ivy is not contagious from person to person. It is only be spread by direct contact, but that may include secondary contact, i.e. petting an animal that has the oil on its coat.
If you’re traveling in states that have poison oak or poison sumac, familiarize yourself with what those plants look like. Be aware that poison oak has three to five leaves, and poison sumac has seven to 13.