Enquirer Herald

Brad Harvey: Steer clear of the green leaves of misery, poison ivy and oak

Before April ended, I got word of one bad case of “the blistering itch.”

A local youngster got it after a weekend retreat with the youth group at his church. He had rolled in one of those evil plants that dot the landscape, and his torso was covered with the rash of misery.

His mom had to run him down to Piedmont West for a doctor to take a look and give him a prescription.

As I followed some of the comments on Facebook, I chuckled at some of the well-intentioned comments.

Despite poison ivy and poison oak being such a common problem, people still don’t have a good grasp of it or just how these plants work.

Both flourish throughout the Palmetto State and, for me personally, are the worst things that I can encounter in the woods. I’ll take a run-in with a pack of rabid coyotes over a slight brush-up against one of these pesky plants any day.

After all, with a list of allergies that literally runs for several legal pad pages, this one is my worst. I’m convinced that the mere sight of this leafy demon is all it takes for me to spend the next week in complete agony.

There is actually not a lot of difference between these two plants.

Both are easily identifiable, may or may not include berries and can grow on the ground or in a vine-like formation. Of course, the biggest shared trait is that the itchy, blistering, burning rash that they provide which is caused by the same substance.

The proper name for the oil that is found in every part of these plants, including leaves, stem and berries, and is urushiol.

This unbelievably strong oil can stay active on anything it comes in contact with for as long as five years, meaning that those garden gloves may still be a threat.

This stuff is nothing to laugh at.

Just consider this information that I found from The Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac Information Center, at www.poisonivy.aesir.com:

▪  Only 1 nanogram, or a billionth of a gram, is needed to cause a rash.

▪  A quarter ounce of urushiol is all that is needed to cause a rash in every person on earth.

▪  500 people could itch from the amount covering the head of a pin.

▪  Specimens of urushiol several centuries old have been found to cause dermatitis in sensitive people.

Common myths

One of the reasons folks don’t have a good understanding of these plants is because there are so many myths associated with them. Let’s take a gander at a few of the things that many people consider to be fact.

▪  Don’t scratch it! It’ll spread! If those blisters burst, you’ll have it everywhere.

I’ve heard this one all of my life. But scratching that itch won’t spread it. The only way for the contact dermatitis received from these plants to spread is by the oil itself.

But bursting the blisters can results in infection.

▪  Burning the plants is the only way to rid it from your property.

You definitely don’t want to try that one. When the plants are burned, the oil becomes airborne and can cover your entire body, both inside and out. If breathed in, the rash soon develops in the lungs and causes a serious medical emergency.

According to Clemson University’s Extension Service, the best way to remove the plants is with numerous applications of glyphosate, more commonly known as Roundup.

Just be careful when you’re getting close and remember that, although the plant may be dead, the oil is still active. Don’t touch it!

▪  It only affects you in the summer.

Many believe this one because summer is the time of year that most people come into contact due to an increased level of outdoor activity. The reality is that there is no time of year that you are safe from these plants.

▪  Leaves of three, let them be!

Most of us have heard this rule. It’s true for poison ivy but not 100 percent for poison oak, which can have as many as five leaves per cluster. To be on the safe side, it’s better to know what the leaves, stems and vines look like and just stay clear of anything that looks close.

▪  I’m immune to it. It’s never bothered me!

While it is true some people do not have a developed allergy to the plants, repeated exposure raises the likelihood of an outbreak. In other words, you just haven’t been around it enough and sensitivity to the oil can develop at any time.

Now, I’ve heard of many home remedies, such as rubbing citrus fruit peels to the area, for getting rid of the rash but I’m not going to waste much time on that here. The one that has been proven to help is applying a paste made from the jewelweed plant. Ironically, the problem is that the jewelweed is most often found growing right beside the poison ivy.

Tips for prevention

The Food and Drug Administration offers these tips for dealing with these nasty neighbors.

▪  Learn what poison ivy and oak plants look like so that you can avoid them.

▪  Wash your garden tools and gloves regularly. If you think you may be working around eh plants, wear long sleeves, long pants tucked into boots and gloves.

▪ Wash your pet while wearing rubber gloves, such as dishwashing gloves, if it may have brushed up against poison ivy or oak. Use pet shampoo and water. Most pets are not sensitive to poison ivy, but the oil can stick to their fur and cause a reaction in someone who pets them.

▪  Wash your skin in cool water as soon as possible if you come in contact with a poisonous plant. The sooner you cleanse the skin, the greater the chance that you can remove the oil or prevent further spread.

▪  Use the topical product Ivy Block if you know you will come into contact with the plants. This FDA-approved product is available over the counter.

Tips for treatment

▪  Don’t scratch the blisters. Bacteria from under your fingernails can get into the blisters and cause an infection.

The rash, blisters, and itch normally disappear in several weeks without any treatment but you can relieve the itch by taking these steps:

▪  Use wet compresses or soak in cool water

▪  Applying over-the-counter topical corticosteroid preparations or taking prescription oral corticosteroids, or

▪  Applying topical over-the-counter skin protectants, such as calamine, to dry oozing and weeping or to relieve the itching.

Brad Harvey is a freelance writer in Clover. Visit his website at www.bradharveyoutdoors.com or follow on Twitter @BHarveyOutdoors.