Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Poison Ivy - Identifying and Treating

The Wilderness Skills Intensive weekend I was at this past weekend was amazing.  I can't wait to tell you all about it. I took home fond memories, invaluable skills, new friendships, various hand-made tools and a wee bit of poison ivy.  Let's begin with the poison ivy.

I discovered I am one of the 60-80% of people who is allergic to the oil produced by this plant back in the 80's when I had such a bad case that my eye was swollen shut, I had webbed toes and my boss asked me to leave the office and go home.  If you've ever had a severe case of poison ivy, you can relate.  

While it brings me such great discomfort, I am in awe of this plant that can bring even the biggest and toughest of us to our knees begging for mercy.   Here's a little more about this incredible plant that we should all treat with the utmost respect and caution.

Identifying poison ivy:
If you're planning a trip to a park (yes, even urban parks like Assiniboine Park can have poison ivy),  river bank, bush or forest know how to identify this plant and don't touch it with any part of you.
  • Three leaves 3-12cm in length, red in spring, satin green in summer and shades of yellow, orange, red or bronze in autumn. 
  • Slightly toothed, somewhat shiny, smooth leaves. 
  • A woody stock at the base of the plant. 
  • Grows along the edge of trails or disturbed habitats where sunlight can reach it.
General Info:
  • Urushiol,  a colourless, odorless oil (resin) contained in the leaves of the plants is the cause of allergic reactions in 60-80% of people. 
  • The oil can be carried in the air, on clothes or on pet fur. People extremely sensitive to this plant may get a rash from airborne oil particles.
  • Burning the plant releases the oil in the air and can cause extreme reactions to all parts of the body (even air passages). Do NOT burn poison ivy plants. 
  • People can develop the allergy over time and repeated exposure. 
  • The reaction causes a rash, itching, swelling and tiny blisters. 
  • The reaction can happen within hours or within 5 days of contact. 
  • The rash may take one to two weeks to heal. 
  • Severe poison ivy should be treated by a Doctor. 
  • Poison ivy blisters are not contagious since they do not contain urushiol. However, if urushiol remains on something (pants,hiking boots, pet's fur) you might be re-exposed and experience a reaction again. 
  • Urushiol can remain active for over a year!
The Rash
I know what the plant looks like, I know how sensitive I am, I know not to touch it or to touch any part of my clothing or footwear that has come in contact with it - and still, I usually get a bout of poison ivy every year.  As unattractive as it may be, I feel obliged to show you what the rash looks like.  Here's my wrist three days after exposure.  It's itchy, it's red and it's blistery.

By the way, I would consider this a mild case - it can get much worse, especially if you start scratching.
Treating Poison Ivy
Laura Reeves, a botanist and the instructor for the Wilderness Skills Intensive workshop, and our hosts from Northern Sun Farm Co-Op that are surrounded by poison ivy plants daily, suggested I try some natural remedies for treating poison ivy rash.  


The sap inside the stems of jewelweed (related to impatients) should be rubbed on the parts of the skin exposed.  It will reduce the symptoms significantly and if applied immediately after contact, may prevent the rash from occurring.  

The really cool thing about this plant is that it grows in the same habitat as poison ivy.  Poison and antidote right next to each other - isn't that amazing.  
If you don't have access or can't find jewelweed, try garden variety impatients.  They're rumoured to have the same properties at smaller concentrations.

Oak Tea
Another natural remedy recommended was to soak the affected area with oak tea.  Apparently the tannic acid in the oak leaves, bark and acorns will act as an astringent to help dry out and calm the rash.  I wasn't instructed on how to make oak tea, but I figured some leaves and bark in a pot of boiling water, left to steep for half an hour should be enough to produce tannic acid water. 

Conventional Treatment
If you prefer more conventional treatment, here are some suggestions.   Calamine lotion doesn't seem to do anything for me, but some people say it helps them.  When I had it really bad, I did see my Doctor who prescribed some heavy duty hydrocortisone.  I've never taken antihistamines for poison ivy. Do what you gotta do!

  1. Stay outside. If you know you've been exposed, avoid going indoors to prevent spreading the urushiol.  Take your shoes and clothes off outside.
  2. Clean your skin immediately. If you do this within 10 minutes, you may be able to get the urushiol off before it penetrates your skin. 

  • Don't use hot water on your skin. This can draw the urushiol deeper into your pores.[2]
  • Don't use soap until after you've rinsed off your skin with just water. Soap can pick up the urushiol and move it around to other parts of your body.[1]
  • Don't forget to clean under your fingernails; you may have scratched off some urushiol and could redeposit it on other objects or areas of your skin by accident. 
  • Since urushiol is an oily resin, it binds to proteins in the skin and, after this process is complete, is nearly impossible to remove.

  1.  Recognize the symptoms. If you didn't get the urushiol off in time, an allergic reaction may follow within 48 hours. First, your skin gets red and itchy. Then a rash follows, usually in a pattern of streaks or patches. Eventually the rash turns into red bumps or large oozing blisters. The rash will appear wherever you came in contact with urushiol, although it may take longer for the rash to appear on parts of your body where your skin is thicker. It doesn't spread  because there's no urushiol in the blisters.[3][4] Once the urushiol is gone, the rash will go away. Spreading only occurs if urushiol remains on your skin, fingers or clothing.  Because it is an oil, you must be diligent with washing and using soap in order to remove the oil.
  2. Stop scratching! Even though the rash is not contagious, it's best to avoid damaging the skin, or else you run the risk of getting an infection from germs.
  3. Wash clothes and anything else that may have come in contact with a poisonous plant (gardening tools, pets, sports equipment, sheets). Don't underestimate the power of urushiol; it can remain active for over a year.[4]
  4. Cool off. Take cold baths or showers, apply cold compresses, and/or massage the affected area with an ice cube. The cooling sensation will provide temporary relief.[2]
  5. Dry off. Always let the area air dry – this reduces the itching and oozing of blisters.[2]
  6. Work to soothe the rash. Some of the following products can help soothe the itching and irritation of poison ivy or poison oak:

  • Take antihistamines. They can be taken orally or applied topically, or both. Unfortunately, these types of products only treat the itching symptoms but do not help the rash heal more quickly [5]. Antihistamines, generally offer only mild relief from the symptoms of poison ivy, but if taken before bedtime their combination of anti-allergy and drowsiness-inducing effects can help you get some rest. 
  • Try hydrocortisone cream. However, some people find that hydrocortisone cream makes the symptoms worse in the long run. While the ingredients work for several hours, these creams tend to moisturize the skin at a time when drying provides longer-lasting relief. 
  • Apply calamine lotion. Calamine lotion can ease the itching and soothe blistered skin. Apply regularly and liberally.
If - or for many of us - when you get poison ivy, good luck and don't scratch! 


Anonymous said...

Is it safe to eat cooked food that may have been prepared after handling poison ivy?

Getty Stewart said...

Interesting question. Honestly, I don't know.
I have read that burning poison ivy is extremely dangerous for people with severe allergies to it. The oil will be distributed in the air and can be inhaled, causing a reaction in the throat. I'm not sure if this is relevant in your case.

Personally, I probably have eaten food that I prepared after unknowingly touching poison ivy. I've never had an internal reaction.

What I have learned from this latest bout is to wash thoroughly after I think I may have been in contact with poison ivy. And, if a rash does appear, wash it thoroughly to ensure any traces of oil are removed.

Sheri said...

Thanks for posting this Getty! I only realized that my mosquito bites were poison ivy when they started to spread...!! I just put jewel weed on the patches on my body and no more itching! Luckily, my retired nurse friend had some in her flower we did diagnosis and treatment all in one! I hope it continues to work this well.
I think I must have got it from the farm cat b/c I wasn't around any poison ivy.
Thanks again!