Must Be the Season of the Itch


Summertime is peaking and there’s a chance that you, like 500,000 other Americans, will enjoy the park or a picnic and return home with a friend. Her name is Ivy. Her victims call her Poison.

Contact dermatitis is her gift to you. It’s the result of touching the oily toxins in a trio of plants named poison ivy, poison sumac and poison oak. Though each is a different plant, all have something in common. They contain urushiol (pronounced oo-roo-shee-ohl) in their sap. Urushiol is among the planet’s most toxic substances. It likely won’t kill you (though it can,) but you might wish you were dead. As little as one-billionth of a gram of urushiol can cause a skin reaction. If you brush against one of the three cousins, you can expect a reaction within hours. A red, linear rash, accompanied by extreme itching or burning will let you know your new friend has arrived. She’ll be hanging out for two or three weeks and you’ll be giving her lots of attention until she leaves.

The rash is an allergic reaction. A few people and most animals are unaffected by the toxin, but about 85 percent of all humans will get to know the real meaning of itch. Sometimes a first exposure brings no reaction; and if it does, it may take a week to show up. Successive contact increases the likelihood of a rash.

By the way, just because pets aren’t usually allergic doesn’t mean they won’t fetch your friend to you. They could brush against a plant and transfer the oil to you.

Climb it change. The National Geographic Society reported some disconcerting news a couple years ago. Global warming and climate change are factoring into poison ivy and its growth. Higher levels of carbon dioxide associated with global warming seem to have an unexpected effect on poison ivy, turning it into a super-powerful version of the plant.

Duke University researchers found that increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide resulted in more and faster-growing poison ivy plants. But that’s not the worst of it. The urushiol also increases in potency.

Poison sumac, oak and ivy have regional preferences. Hawaii and Alaska are free of all three. Poison sumac is mostly found east of the Mississippi River and in the Southeast. Poison ivy is rarely found west of the Rockies. That is poison oak country. There is neither poison ivy nor poison sumac in California, only poison oak. Usually none of the three can be expected above 5,000 feet.

All are hardy. They like water and ravines and blend in among more harmless vegetation. One helpful way to avoid getting a dose of dermatitis is to avoid the plant and its toxic oil. Covering with long-sleeved shirts or long pants will go a long way toward making your summer itchy-free.

Leaves of three, let it be!
Poison ivy is the most consistent with the three-leaf cluster pattern. There are three pointed leaves from three to six inches long, sometimes with whitish berries. Ivy can grow low to the ground or entwine a tall tree. It is technically a vine.

The plants contain itchy urushiol all year. Dry, dead plants can be as bad as live ones. Since urushiol is an oily liquid, it can get on tools, gloves, clothing or pets and be transferred to the skin. The oil can remain toxic for years. In a matter of minutes or hours after contact, depending on conditions, the toxin penetrates the skin and the rash is inevitable. Some experts say you have a period of time to wash the contact area thoroughly and avoid the rash. Be sure to use solvent-type soap, not an oil-based one, or the oily urushiol will just spread. But, another school of thought warns that soap will also wash away the natural protective oil that is part of your skin. If in doubt, just use plenty of clean, cool water. Hot water spreads the oil.

It’s not a good idea to burn poison ivy stands even when the plant is dead or dry. The smoke carries urushiol and you do not want that stuff in your lungs.

“You’re gonna need an ocean, of calamine lotion.” — from the ’50s hit song, Poison Ivy.

Songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote that catchy line in their classic song. If you have the misfortune of running across poison ivy on your summer adventures, calamine lotion may be a solution.

Nature provides a remedy for the itch of poison ivy. There is a plant that almost always grows right near poison ivy that will save you the redness, swelling, rash and itching poison ivy promises. It is known as jewelweed.

If you contact poison ivy, look for some jewelweed nearby. Identify it by its purple-spotted orange flowers about an inch long. Crush up some of the stems and leaves and rub on the site of contact. Tradition says the jewelweed will keep the rash from developing or minimize the effect. Time is an important factor — the sooner, the better.

After a reaction has already set in and the rash appears, there are still some things you can do to make it bearable. Jewelweed can soothe the rash after it appears. A paste of baking soda and oatmeal can lessen the itch. Another useful herbal is the buckthorn plant. Also known as plantain, the leaves have a thick, green sap that supposedly soothes the itch for up to 24 hours. Aloe vera is a soothing balm. A cool bath with cornstarch can help. Unfortunately, only time (about two weeks) will make the blisters and rash go away. Scratching won’t cause the rash to spread but it doesn’t help it heal.

As my friends Leiber and Stoller suggested, calamine lotion will soothe the rash. But even an ocean of the lotion won’t heal it.

Be well.

posted at 11:30 pm
on Monday, July 18th, 2011


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