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Poison Ivy: An Itchy Situation

The weather is warming up, that means more time outside soaking up the sun and tidying up our yards. It also means more exposure to poison ivy. Learn how to maximize your outdoor fun while minimizing your poison ivy risk.

 Poison Ivy

Most Missourians have probably heard of at least three "poison" plants to watch out for: poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), poison oak (Toxicodendron toxocarium) and poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix). However, only poison ivy is common in Missouri. Poison oak is rare, and poison sumac has never been recorded in the state. [Source: Missouri Department of Conservation]

The "poison," or substance that causes the allergic reaction, is an oily resin called urushiol. It only takes a small amount of the resin to cause a reaction. Urushiol can be transferred to the skin by directly touching the plant or indirectly by coming in contact with something that has touched the plant. [Source: Health and Wellness Resource Center*]

Contrary to popular belief, scratching a poison ivy rash does not cause the rash to spread. A poison ivy rash can take 24 to 48 hours to completely develop, this makes it seem as though the rash is "spreading." While scratching doesn't spread the rash it can cause the skin to become infected. So mom's admonishment to "Stop scratching!" still holds weight. A skin infection on top of a poison ivy rash is only adding insult to injury and will do nothing to speed along your recovery.

Symptoms

Symptoms of exposure to poison ivy:

  • Extreme itching
  • Red, streaky, patchy rash where the plant touched the skin
  • Red bumps, which may form large, weeping blisters

Prevention

Prevention is the best medicine. The following steps should minimize your exposure to poison ivy.

  • Do not touch plants that look like poison ivy. Remember the old adage: "Leaves of three, let it be!" [View photos of poison ivy.]
  • Wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and gloves.
  • Put on skin block to protect your skin from poison ivy oil. You can buy Bentoquatam lotion without a prescription.
  • Wash your clothes with warm, soapy water when you return home. Wash them separately from other clothes. 
  • Never burn poison ivy plants. This can spread the oil through the air. If you breathe the oil into your lungs you could have swelling and serious breathing problems. Oil that clings to the fire ash can land on your skin and cause a rash.
  • Remove poison ivy plants from your yard. Wear protective clothing such as long pants, sleeves, heavy gloves, and closed-toe shoes. If you are very sensitive to poison ivy have someone else with less sensitivity remove the plant for you. Pull the plant out by the root. Place it in a plastic bag and seal the bag tightly. Do not touch anyone or anything after you pull out the poison ivy. Wash all clothing items immediately with warm, soapy water.

Treatment

If, despite your best precautions, you still find yourself with a rash the following treatments can help to ease your discomfort:

  • Apply a cool compress to the affected area.
  • Calamine lotion is available without a prescription and can be used to relieve the itching, pain, and discomfort of minor skin irritations.
  • An oatmeal bath can also help to soothe itchy skin.
  • Taking an oral antihistamine can help with the itching but does not clear up the rash.
  • Call your doctor if your rash covers a large body area or if it is on your face near your eyes. You may need to take prescription medicine to decrease swelling and discomfort.

As cathartic as it may be, it's not always necessary to wage war on poison ivy plants. This is especially true if the plant grows where it won't bother anyone. Poison ivy causes many of us discomfort, but it also has some merits. Many birds including warblers, woodpeckers, bluebirds, and vireos eat poison ivy berries. Rabbits, deer, black bear, and muskrats and other animals eat the fruit, stems, and leaves. [Source: Missouri Department of Conservation]

For further research on poison ivy, take advantage of any of these reputable sources: print resources in the Library, Health and Wellness Resource Center*, MedLine Plus, or contact your healthcare provider.


* Library card required for use outside the Library

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