Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Guest Star Day: The perils of poison ivy.

An excerpt from my column, originally published in 2005.

They say that no good deed goes unpunished, and my dad is living proof. All he wanted to do was clean up the yard. He ended up going mano a mano with Rhus radicans, better known as poison ivy.

When Captain John Smith first coined the term in 1609, he wasn't kidding. In spite of an immediate and thorough scrub, Dad was soon in serious trouble. Redness and itching quickly became a painful infection, for which over-the-counter remedies did nothing. A doctor was consulted, who gave an exclamation of horror and a prescription. Dad is now on the mend. He's also the sworn enemy of poison ivy.

I'll bet some of you are thinking, "Gee, I'm glad I'm immune!" Don't be too sure of that. An estimated ninety-plus percent of all people can develop an allergy to poison ivy, given time and exposure. The culprit is urushiol oil, the "poison" in poison ivy. This stuff is powerful. A mere billionth of a gram is enough to cause a rash. With just a quarter of an ounce, you could give that rash to every person on the planet. Even specimens hundreds of years old can affect sensitive people.

If you're doing yardwork, hunting, or hiking, wear protective clothing, and remember the old adage, "Leaflets three, let it be." Poison ivy is sneaky, and can disguise itself as a bush or a tree. If you do come in contact with some, you've got about fifteen minutes to wash. After that time, the urushiol oil has bonded with your skin protiens, and is preparing to make you miserable. Mild cases can be treated with tea tree oil, apple cider vinegar, and/or goldenseal root powder. Contrary to popular belief, the rash is not contagious. Only contact with the oil itself produces the symptoms. Breaking any resulting blisters won't spread urushiol oil, but it may lead to infection and scarring. Like I said before, this stuff is powerful. Even dead plants can harbor active oil for an average of five years. Never EVER burn poison ivy. The oil will become airborne and get into your lungs. We don't want to think about that.

Something to think about: poison ivy isn't the only source of urushiol oil. There's poison oak and poison sumac, and several members of the Anacardiaceae family. You want a f'rinstance? Cashew, Mango, and Ginkgo biloba trees all produce urushiol oil. Spooky, huh? Good thing it's not in the parts we like to eat.

To close on this subject, I'll leave you with a few words fom my dad, Gary the Ivy Slayer. "Having JUST survived, I can give you two major hunks of advice. One, it is APTLY named. Two, do not, I repeat, do not belive that a moderate to severe attack by this terrible weed can possibly be cured by anything you can buy at Wal-Mart! Read the labels and watch the rash grow by leaps and bounds. By the time I finally quit reading, I had contracted a dose of skin infection that could only be cured by something from a REAL doctor. Blue Shield, Co-pay, Apply three times daily, 60 milligrams, Do not take with any of the other stuff for which you already gave a week's pay; this became my mantra. I still have a pretty sizeable rash, but I no longer fear my imminent arrival at the hospital. I say to you of the itchy rash, go to your doctor. Don't waste your time, money or physical wellbeing on a belief that you can cure it yourself."


  1. I've been luckier than I realized to avoid poison ivy and similar horrors during my life. You can bet I'll stay far away from anything that looks even a tiny bit like this menace.

  2. I've been lucky, too. I swear, Dad's arms looked like overdone ham!

  3. I never had poison ivy, but have seen some of my friends with it. Nasty stuff. Wouldn't wish it on anyone. Have a great week.

    Stephen Tremp


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