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Poison Ivy!


Outdoor Safety and First Aid...



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July 01, 2009
All poison ivy and poison sumac plants, living or dead, moist or dry, leaves and roots, contain urushiol (ooh-roo-she-all) oil, a potent substance that causes what physicians call plant-induced contact dermatitis. And that poison ivy rash - as we call it - can be just bothersome or a nasty outdoor adventure destroyer and wreck havoc on body parts any time of the year, not just during the heat of the summer.

Poison ivy identification is not as simple as, "Leaflets three, let them be." Follow that old adage without further thought and you'll be missing many wild treats, strawberries included, and still expose yourself to unusual poison ivy forms. And if you venture into swamps and wetlands, poison sumac, a plant with seven to thirteen toxic leaves on a branch, may await you. And with exposure to the damned duo comes a curse of itching, weeping welts, bumps, blisters and swelling followed by a yellowish crust. For some the chain reaction starts in hours, for others it take days.

Prime Conditions

The rains of early spring, followed by summer-like warmth at the end of May helped shape the summer of 09' to be a season of prolific poison ivy exposure for all outdoor adventure seekers. Fishers, campers, hikers, kayakers, wildland firefighters, trail runners and even K-9 officers on training tracks are at risk. And here's another nasty fact: Poison ivy eats CO2 for breakfast and that greenhouse gas makes the plant more potent, a fact uncovered by researchers at Duke University and confirmed by facts on the ground in nature.

Conditions are now optimum for exposure to poison ivy everywhere in the woods and along the waters of Michigan. If you think you are immune, think again. Medical professionals agree that over 75% of the population is sensitive/allergic to urushiol oil and it's just a matter of time and exposure before you break out in an allergic rash.

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Poison ivy vines can creep dozens of feet up a tree with side branches 10 feet long. Jonathan Schechter photo
Direct Contact

Direct contact is needed for the urushiol oil to be transferred from the plant to you, but that's where we lovers of the outdoors get in trouble. Direct contact is easy. Simply picking up a jitterbug lure that snagged a poison ivy leaf, or resting your bare bottom side against a log that once cradled a poison ivy vine when answering the call of nature is direct contact. Campfires are another unexpected means of transmission. A poison ivy vine remnant on a log in a fire is direct contact if the urushiol oils bind with the smoke. (Many wildland fire fighters in California last fire season were treated for plant contact dermatitis from smoke exposure, some with lung and eye irritation as well.)

All the tools of our trade that touch poison ivy and we subsequently touch can spread the oil: gunstocks, hunting jackets, blinds, canoe paddles, kayak sides, chain saws, tents, snagged fishing lines, tripods, dogs, decoys, boot laces, backpack straps. You name it; it can transfer the urushiol oil. To make matters worse urushiol oil is an unwelcome gift that keeps on giving. If you chopped wood last summer and the axe handle was in contact with poison ivy and you pick up that same axe today after it sat in a dry cabin for a year you are still susceptible to contact dermatitis. Bottom line; contact is next to unavoidable so the best we can do is recognize poison ivy in its three most common forms and be knowledgeable on prophylactic and post exposure methods to remain rash free.

Poison Ivy Identification

Most of us recognize poison ivy as a low to the ground shiny three leafed plant (the leaves are usually reddish in early spring, now they are deep green), but it can also develop into a thick chest high bush that is nearly impregnable or a tree hugging vine that can easily climb 40 feet. In the tree-hugging form, the plant produces side "branches" that can extend out five to 10 feet from the trunk, a true urushiol producing monster of the woods. Poison ivy vines, unlike grape vines, have tiny fine "hairs" that cling to the tree, while grape vines tend to peel and dangle free. Many excellent color pictures of poison ivy in all its forms can be found on the internet but always remember that there is a great amount of variation in individual leaf shape, sizes and general structure.

Poison ivy thrives along trail ways, bike paths, portage and hiking routes, under power lines and in well used parks, partially because of the means of seed spread. In fall, tiny whitish-green berries form which are attractive to birds. The birds - when passing the remains - deposit the seeds along these disturbed human travel corridors when they perch on overhanging tree limbs, on fence posts and wires.

After Contact

There is disagreement on how fast you must act after coming into contact with poison ivy to avoid a rash, your body's natural reaction to the toxin. Most experts agree it binds to the skin in 10n to 20 minutes. With that fact in mind there are a wide variety of quality products on the market that help in preventing and stopping the binding process. My personal favorite is Tecnu Extreme Poison Ivy Scrub (www.tecnu.com) which always stays in my back pack ready for emergency slather-on applications. A hypersensitive friend uses individual pre-contact and cleanser towelettes of IvyX (www.coretexproducts.com) with excellent results before she heads for the trout stream with fly rod in hand.

Nature too provides a cleansing tool, spotted jewelweed, also known as Touch-Me-Not, for in late summer the swollen seed pods "explode" when touched. This leafy plant with thin translucent, succulent stems can be easily crushed and exude a watery juice. The crushed leaves, steam and juice are then rubbed against the skin to help remove oils. (Helps relive mosquito bite too!) Internet searches show a wide variety of folk remedies; proceed with caution so you don't make a bad situation worse.

If you come down with a poison ivy rash remember that contrary to myth it is not contagious and that oozing blister fluid does not contain urushiol and won't spread the rash. We've come a long ways from the days of just slopping on good old pink calamine lotion or soaking in a tub bath laced with oatmeal. Do nothing and most cases resolve in one to three weeks.

Medical Help

A pharmacist can suggest many excellent over the counter products to relive the itch. But there is a time to seek medical help. Physicians Assistant Julie Guy reminds us that in addition to thoroughly cleaning clothes and skin after exposure there is a time to contact a health care provider, "Facial, eye, lip or genital involvement; difficulty swallowing or breathing or signs of infection such as pus oozing from lesions, odor and increasing pain signal trouble as well as a fever over 100F and/or a widespread rash."

Like it or not, poison ivy is a thriving plant in Michigan, an annoyance and dermatological danger if we give it half a chance.

Jonathan Schechter is a naturalist/paramedic and member of the Wilderness Medical Society. You can email him at oaknature@aol.com

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