9 things you should know about poison ivy
Poison ivy is one of the few plants in the Maine wilderness that humans need to look out for – and it’s very common.
As the weather warms up and people are spending more time outdoors gardening, hiking, hunting, and more, now is a good time to brush up on your knowledge of this disturbing plant. How does it look like? What should you do if you accidentally touch it? Here are answers to these important questions and more.
1. “Leaves of three, let it be.”
This common saying is often used to describe poison ivy, but what does it really mean? Poison ivy is a woody perennial that produces clusters of three leaflets, with the middle leaflet often larger than the other two. Apart from this defining characteristic, poison ivy plants differ greatly in appearance. The leaves can be shiny or dull. The edges of the leaves can be serrated, smooth, or lobed. And the actual plant may be in the form of an erect shrub or a woody vine. While there are other plants that have “leaves of three,” the safest thing you can do is not to touch plants with clusters of three leaflets.
Poison ivy leaves turn reddish in autumn. And in the spring the plant produces small clusters of yellow-green flowers that are replaced with green berries that turn light gray or white later in the season. Native to New England, the plant is found in many different habitats including forest edges, gardens, roadsides, and river banks. It grows in areas that receive partial shade to full sun and has adapted to a variety of soil moisture conditions, as per the UMass Extension Landscape, Nursery and Urban Forestry Program.
2. It’s about an oily liquid called urushiol.
Poison ivy produces an oily liquid called urushiol, which causes an allergic reaction in the form of a terrible rash in most people. This liquid covers the entire plant – the leaves, stems, roots, berries. Everything.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, about 85 percent of people develop an allergic reaction when they come into contact with urushiol. The rest of the people aren’t responding at all – but that may not always be the case. People can develop sensitivity to urushiol over time, possibly due to repeated exposure to urushiol. Conversely, some people will become less allergic to the oil over time.
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3. The rash can vary in severity and timing.
The allergic reaction caused by urushiol varies from person to person. Common symptoms include severe itching, rash, swelling, blisters, clear or yellow drainage, and red, leathery skin. Serious reactions may include difficulty breathing and swallowing, swelling of the face or eyes, and fever.
The rash usually develops 12 to 48 hours after exposure and lasts for two to three weeks, according to the Mayo Clinic. Everyone’s reaction, however, is slightly different. The severity of the rash and how quickly it develops can depend on several factors, including the person’s sensitivity to urishinol and the amount of urishinol the person comes in contact with.
People who are particularly sensitive to the oil can develop a rash within a few hours. While people who are less sensitive to the substance can take up to 10 days to develop a rash. Areas of the body with thinner skin can also develop the rash faster than areas of the body with thicker skin. And the first time you get a poison ivy rash, symptoms can last three to four weeks, according to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology, while subsequent poison ivy rashes are unlikely to last as long.
4. It’s easy to spread the rash.
Since a poison ivy rash can develop in different areas of the body at different times, people may think that touching them is spreading the rash. That’s not the case. The rash itself is not spreadable or contagious. Only urushiol can spread the rash.
After contact with the plant, people often mistakenly move the urushiol around their bodies with their fingers. This causes the rash to form in multiple places. It is often the way a person gets a poison ivy rash on their face. This is hard to avoid unless you know you’ve come into contact with a poison ivy plant. One preventive measure you could take is not to touch your face outdoors.
5. You can develop a poison ivy rash from touching objects and pets.
You don’t have to touch poison ivy to develop a poison ivy rash. Urishinol can easily be transferred to your skin through items such as gardening gloves and clothing. It can also be worn by dogs and cats who pick it up while exploring the great outdoors. And the tricky thing is, dogs and cats don’t seem to develop rashes from poison ivy. The oil just doesn’t bother them like most people do. While your family dog may seem perfectly fine, they might give you the irritating oily substance if you petted or cuddled them.
6. Poison Ivy Urushiol has a long shelf life.
It takes a long time for urushiol to break down. Sources vary in the exact time it takes for the substance to decompose. However, an article published by Des Moines University states that it can last up to 10 years on a garment and continue to cause allergic reactions. For this reason, it is important to wash clothes and equipment that you use outside with soap and water.
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7. Immediate washing with soap and water may help.
If you find that you have touched a poison ivy plant, gently wash that area of your skin with soap and cold water as soon as possible. This will remove the urushiol from your skin, which can reduce the severity of the rash. It also prevents you from spreading the rash to other areas of your skin. The window of time in which you have to do this is small. After a few hours, washing with soap and water is unlikely to help. However, washing will still remove the urushiol and you won’t be able to spread the rash to other parts of the body.
8. Some poison fire reactions require a visit to your doctor.
Many people treat mild poison ivy rashes at home, relieving symptoms by taking lukewarm baths and applying cool compresses and anti-itch lotions such as calamine lotion. It is important not to scratch the blisters as bacteria under your fingernails can cause infection.
If you’ve had a severe reaction or developed a poison ivy rash around your eyes, mouth, or genitals, it’s important to see a doctor, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. A severe reaction may include swelling of the face or around the eyes, difficulty breathing, fever, or itching that is severe enough to keep you awake at night.
Your doctor may prescribe an oral corticosteroid such as prednisone, according to the Mayo Clinic. And if a bacterial infection develops at the rash site, your doctor can prescribe you a prescription for an oral antibiotic.
9. Don’t burn poison ivy.
When you get rid of poison ivy plants growing on your property, don’t burn them. Smoke inhaled from poison ivy can cause an allergic reaction that can cause breathing difficulties.
Instead, many experts suggest using herbicides to kill poison ivy. Herbicides in particular, which contain the active ingredient glyphosate and triclopyr, work well according to the UMass extension.
A riskier method of removal would be to pull up the plants while wearing plenty of protective clothing and gloves that should be thrown away afterward. Don’t use a chainsaw or thread cutter, which can easily splash urushiol from the plant on you.
Poison ivy is a plant that should be taken seriously, but in most cases it can be easily avoided. When spending time outdoors, watch out for “leaves of three”. And when in doubt, do not touch the plant. “Let it be.”
Aislinn Sarnacki can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Facebook: facebook.com/1minhikegirl, Twitter: @ 1minhikegirl and Instagram: @actoutdoors. Her guidebooks, Family-Friendly Maine Hikes, Maine Off-the-Trail Hikes, and Dog-Friendly Maine Hikes, are available in local bookstores and anywhere that books are sold.