Nature’s Revenge by PJ LaRue Smith.
Several species of poison ivy are listed under the Toxicodendron Mill. (Poison Oak) Genus, a member of the Sumac family. In the Hunt County area, the predominate type is eastern poison ivy. This form can be present as a low (6 to 18”), spreading “carpet” on the forest floor, as a climbing vine, or as a bush. All parts of the plant contain the allergy-producing chemical urushiol, with the heaviest concentrations located in it’s root system. Depending upon a person’s sensitivity, poison ivy dermatitis (rash) can appear anywhere from a few hours to 7 to 10 days after contact with the urushiol oil.
Poison ivy can be found growing in the woods, along fence rows, and in the yard. It can sprout from seed (waxy white clusters of berries), aboveground vines, rhizomes, and root crowns. Seeds are dispersed by animals and birds, and, as they are buoyant, via waterways as well. Birds and animals partial to poison ivy berries are also fans of hackberry, juniper, Virginia creeper, and blackberries as well.
Many myths abound when it comes to poison ivy. Myth – Poison ivy is contagious: Fact – Urushiol is an oil, remaining on clothes, shoes, tools, etc. and transferrable until removed with soap and water. Myth – One can “get” poison ivy by simply being near the plant: Fact – Urushiol must come in contact with the skin in order for dermatitis to occur. This can happen through direct contact with the plant: secondary contact with an object, person, or animal that has been in contact with the plant; and airborne contact due to burning the plant or during mowing, weed-eating, etc. (Note: For those who are highly susceptible to the affects of urushiol, smoke inhalation can result in a life-threatening situation requiring immediate medical assistance.) Myth – Don’t worry about dead plants, they are harmless: Fact – Urushiol oil can exist on a surface, including dead plants, for up to five years. Myth – Someone who has “rolled in poison ivy” with no allergic reaction is “immune”: Fact – Upwards of 90% of people are allergic to urushiol, the number of times exposed and the length of exposure are key factors in developing the allergy.
Protecting oneself from coming into contact with urushiol has several components. Educating yourself on what the plant looks like in ALL seasons is the first element. One of the first to leaf out in the spring, poison ivy is also one of the first to turn orange or red in the fall. Check out the vines growing up that tree you’re about to lean on – does the vine have fine hair-like roots growing from it (poison ivy) or is it smooth (grapevine)? Are the leaves in sets of three (poison ivy) or sets of five (Virginia creeper)?
Prepare for potential exposure by wearing long sleeves, boots, socks, pants, gloves, glasses/goggles when hiking or doing yard work. Products, such as Ivy Block®, create a barrier between skin and oil, however, taking a shower after exposure is still required to prevent urushiol transference to other objects or unprotected skin.
The longer urushiol remains on the skin, the greater the potential for reaction. If exposure is likely, follow these steps to minimize the risk of an allergic reaction: 1. Wash all tools thoroughly with soap and water. 2. Remove all clothes, shoes/boots, gloves, sunglasses, belts, cell phones, etc. in the garage, or mudroom (wash everything with soap and water before using/wearing again). Wash hands in soap and water, then head to the shower. Poison ivy washes, such as Tecnu®, can remove urushiol that has been absorbed into the skin. Soap and water will remove oil that remains on the surface of the skin.
It is essential that everyone follow these procedures in a household, even when not allergic themselves, in order to protect those in their family (and visitors) that are sensitive to urushiol. Vehicles are also a vector of contamination, and should be washed down accordingly as well.
If a reaction does occur, seeking medical attention as quickly as possible will shorten the time of discomfort. Once a person has become sensitized to urushiol, each subsequent exposure will result in a swifter, more pronounced allergic reaction. Taking precautions can certainly make “nature’s revenge” less vengeful!