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Poison Ivy  
It all begins with a little itch…


Poison Ivy
It all begins with a little itch…

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Gerber Life Family Times Archive

Ah, summertime. School’s out and it’s time to wrangle the kids outside for all the outdoor activities this time of year has to offer. From fun activities such as playing ball, hiking, camping, and fishing to other labors like mowing, gardening, barbequing, and landscaping, the warm weather makes the outdoors the largest room in your house. With all the added outdoor action, it’s inevitable that you, your kids, and your pets will come in contact with weeds. It all seems harmless enough but there, lurking in the undergrowth or climbing up the tree or fence, is a menace to your family—poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac.

All three plants exude an oil called urushiol (pronounced: oo-roo-shi-ol) which, when exposed to human skin, causes an allergic reaction (contact dermatitis). The reaction manifests itself in the form of a rash, blisters, and intense, uncomfortable itching. One personal experience involving a bad allergic reaction to poison ivy, oak, or sumac is something you won’t soon forget.

From your youngest chasing down a wayward baseball and your spouse being spattered with trimmings from a lawnmower or weed trimmer, or to the family dog trudging off into the weeds in search of that elusive chipmunk—there are endless opportunities for anyone in your family to come into contact with one of these noxious plants. 

“I spy with my little eye…”

Education is a key to prevention when it comes to poison ivy, oak, and sumac. Grab an encyclopedia or go online and acquaint yourself with the appearance of these plants. Print out color pictures of them and show them to your children. The old saying “leaves of three, let it be” can serve as a good rule of thumb. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, both poison ivy and poison oak typically have three leaves (two opposing leaves on a stem with a third, central leaf slightly extended on the tip of the stem). Poison oak displays oak-shaped leaves, usually in clusters of three. Poison sumac can be identified by its 7 to 13 smooth-edged leaflets formed on a shrub growing up to 15 feet in height.

Make time to get outside and survey your property. Use a rake or long stick to lift up low tree branches and brush. Know what is growing on your property and the common areas where you and your family are active. Then, show your children the areas where they need to be cautious when playing or working.

If the plants are isolated and not impacting other desirable landscape plants, a commercially available weed killer (a herbicide specifically made for poison ivy, oak, and sumac) is a viable alternative. Be aware that even once the plant appears to be dead, care should be taken during its removal. The urushiol oils are still present in the stems and roots of the plant and are fully capable of causing a reaction in a sensitive individual. Use gloves when handling any part of the plants (preferably rubber gloves as cloth gloves can absorb the urushiol and possibly relay it to the skin). When disposing of the plant material never burn any part of the plant in question. The oils become airborne and can cause severe and dangerous skin and respiratory problems—not just for you and your family but also for anyone in the vicinity of the fire.

We have contact…

The best way to keep from having an allergic reaction is to avoid any contact with the plants—however, that isn’t always possible. Also, keep in mind that although they won’t have a reaction when exposed to urushiol, your pets can easily carry the oils on their hair and fur, making them the perfect, unintentional carrier (and source of re-exposure) for the dreaded urushiol oils.

The urushiol is released from the plant when there is damage to a portion of the plant. The FDA states that touching an intact plant will not expose an individual to urushiol but undamaged plants are rare given their fragile plant structure. Exposure is not just limited to summertime activities, every year people are exposed in the winter from handling firewood on which the plant adhered, and by inadvertently using the vines to make holiday wreaths.

If exposure occurs, the FDA recommends the following steps:

  • First, cleanse the exposed skin with generous amounts of isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol.
  • Second, wash the skin with water.
  • Third, take a shower using soap and water. Use of soap before this point can pick up the urushiol and move it to other areas of the skin.

If someone in your family has an allergic reaction to one of these plants and the rash seems to keep coming back—check for sources of exposure that you may have forgotten. Unless they are cleaned, tools, clothing, pets, and other items that have been in contact with urushiol are possible sources of re-exposure. Wash all clothing (including hats, gloves, etc.); bathroom and bedroom linens; bathe pets (and promptly wash towels used to dry them); and clean tools and lawn equipment. Remember, just a little urushiol can go a long, long way.

Another fascinating fact about urushiol is that it has an amazing longevity. The FDA states that urushiol can remain potent and viable on a surface for years, even decades, if the conditions are right.

“Mom, look at this, I itch…”

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, about 85 percent of all people will have an allergic reaction when adequately exposed to these plants. Once exposed, the urushiol begins to penetrate the skin within minutes. A reaction usually appears within 12 to 48 hours. Symptoms include severe itching, redness, and swelling with blisters soon following. The rash typically appears in lines or streaks. Within a few days, the blisters crust over. The FDA notes the symptoms typically disappear in 14 to 20 days, on their own without any treatment. However, few people can function or sleep through the intense itching without some form of treatment. FDA recommendations range from cool, wet compresses and soaking in cool water (for mild reactions) to oral antihistamines and over-the-counter hydrocortisone anti-itch creams. In the event of a severe reaction, a physician or dermatologist should be consulted and prescription oral corticosteroids may be prescribed. Other over-the-counter treatments suggested by the FDA include aluminum acetate (Burrows solution), baking soda, oatmeal baths, aluminum hydroxide gels, calamine lotion, kaolin, zinc acetate, zinc carbonate, or zinc oxide. Some individuals have also found that bathing with Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) helps soothe the itch and dry the rash. The FDA adds that, contrary to popular belief, the oozing blisters do not contain urushiol so they are not contagious and do not spread the rash. In addition, scratching does not spread the rash. Scratching should be avoided, however, as it can cause infection.

Recently a new over-the-counter treatment for exposure has entered the market. Available in various forms, the cream is rubbed onto the affected area where its chemical properties quickly bond with the urushiol, allowing it to be washed from the skin. Although fairly expensive for an over-the-counter product, the treatments provide some added reassurance when you are looking to avoid the dreaded rash and itch.

Educate yourself and your family on the little plants that cause big reactions and make your summer all the more enjoyable—without the itch!

As with all health related issues, always contact your physician concerning your symptoms and condition.

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Articles are provided for the general interest of our readers. Gerber Life Insurance is not responsible for any content and recommends that you consult the appropriate professional with any questions or concerns you may have concerning any financial or health related issues.

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