May 10, 2014

Leaves of Three, Let it Be: Poison Ivy

By: Lawanda Jungwirth 

         Getting poison ivy isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you. But if you do get it, for a month or so you’ll be hard pressed to imagine what any worse thing could be. The itching and blistery rash will consume your every thought.

         The best prevention, of course, is to learn how to identify the plant. It usually grows along the edges of wooded areas and trails. Kids learn “leaves of three, let it be” and that’s a good start. But poison ivy is tricky in that it is a shape shifter. It can be a ground cover, a climbing vine or a small shrub. It takes whatever form is necessary in a particular area to survive. And that’s not all of its many evil wiles. Brilliant red fall foliage invites children to bring home a bouquet for Mom. You can even get a rash from the dead-looking stems in the middle of winter.

         The culprit is an oil the plant produces called urushiol. All parts of the plant produce it, including the roots, making removing the plant tricky.

         Think you’re immune? Got stories about rolling around in poison ivy as a kid and never getting a rash? Well, maybe you were immune last time, but don’t bet on next time. You can gain or lose immunity over time. People change as they age. Also, as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased, the potency of urushiol in poison ivy has intensified dramatically. Don’t take a chance. Fifteen out of a hundred people are truly immune but do you want to bet that you are one of them?

         If you think your skin has been exposed to poison ivy, and you realize it within an hour, rinse with lots and lots and lots of cool water. Lots. Don’t use hot water as that will open the pores on your skin and let the urushiol in. Traditionally, brown fels naptha soap was used after exposure to prevent poison ivy rash outbreaks, but the soapiness actually spreads the oil. Only two things will actually remove the oil: the aforementioned lots of water, or a solvent like rubbing alcohol. Alcohol wipes won’t do it; you need a wash cloth drenched in it. Just slop it over the parts of your skin that were exposed. No need to rub it in, but be generous in your slopping.

         If you didn’t realize that you were exposed and the itchiness has begun (which may happen in a few hours or up to a whole day later), it’s too late to wash off the oil. Now begins the fight to stop the itch. If you’ve had poison ivy before and you know you’re in for a real bad stretch, you may want to hightail it to your doctor for a prescription for a corticosteroid to stop the allergic reaction.

         There are many home remedies and also some commercial products to help soothe the itch of poison ivy. You can buy anti-itch gels, creams and powders. Aloe vera gel can be squeezed from the leaves of the plant if you have one, or the gel can be purchased. Calamine lotion is an old stand-by; get the big bottle. Baking soda and oatmeal baths can help.

         In the wild, jewelweed, which often grows near poison ivy, can help. Crush the leaves, flowers and stems and rub them on your skin to release the juice. You can also try rubbing on the juice of rhubarb leaves, plantain, garlic, ragweed, dock or goldenseal. The reality is that you’re probably going to be so desperate to get rid of the itch that you’ll try ten different things and in the end you won’t know which one, if any, actually worked. The only certain cure is the passage of time.

         If you have poison ivy on your property in an area where you want to walk, work, hunt or play, you’ll want to get rid of it. If it’s in a place where you won’t be coming into contact with it, however, just let it be. It doesn’t crowd out other native plants and it provides food for birds and other wildlife.

         Here are some ways to eradicate poison ivy from your property. For small areas, dig down to expose the roots and flood them with boiling water. Cover the entire area with black or clear plastic sheeting weighted down with rocks. Keep it covered for a whole season.

         For larger patches, continuous cutting, mowing or hoeing is a possibility. Eventually the roots will be depleted of energy and will die. Uprooting entire plants, by pulling or digging is best done in late fall. Plants should be bagged and buried, never composted, to prevent re-sprouting. If you choose the herbicide route, a 1% triclopyr solution is best; other herbicides are not as effective and will require reapplication.

         Don’t even think of burning poison ivy – urushiol is carried in smoke and if you think a case of poison ivy on the skin is bad, inhaling the smoke and getting it inside your lungs will kill you.   Get to the ER immediately if this happens. Also see a doctor right away if you get poison ivy on your face or in your eyes.

         Whichever control method you choose, re-checking for several years will be necessary until the seed bank is depleted.

         No matter which method you choose to remove the plants, wear long pants, long sleeves, a hat, goggles, rubber gloves and rubber boots. After you finish working, wash all your clothes and tools in hot soapy water. If you opened your car door with the gloves on, wash the handle. If you sat on the ATV seat with the same pants you wore while working in the poison ivy patch, wash it. Same with the car steering wheel, keys, your dog, the laundry cabinet where you keep the soap, the washing machine dials, the refrigerator door, and every single thing you touched or the poison ivy touched. Urushiol does not evaporate or dissipate. It can remain potent on surfaces for years. Here’s a tip: wear a different pair of rubber gloves while you are doing all this cleaning.

         Speaking words of wisdom, leaves of three, let it be!