Poison Ivy Information
Poison ivy is a broad-leaf plant with clusters of three leaves. It can occur as a ground plant, as a leafy vine, or as a large hairy vine that branches out higher up in trees. Poison oak is less common and only occurs as a ground plant. It also has 3 leaf clusters but the leaves are shaped like those of an oak tree. They both prefer to grow in moderately shaded locations. Poison sumac only grows in swampy terrain.
Poison ivy sprouts in spring with green-red leaves. It flowers and regrows leaves. In summer its leaves are green. In late summer to early fall, it produces light green berries that are a favorite snack to birds, which aid in spreading it. In fall, the leaves turn red and begin to fall off. In winter, all the leaves have fallen off and there are only stems and vines left.
Poison Ivy Risks
Most people are allergic to poison ivy. In fact, approximately 85 to 90% of people will develop a rash. Additionally, 10 to 15% of people are extremely allergic. For these people, it is possible to have swelling or difficulty breathing or swallowing. Emergency care may be required.
The oily resin called urushiol is responsible for the reaction. While it is possible to be immune to the reaction, exposure to poison ivy is never recommended. It is common to believe you are immune when you’re actually not. This can happen because of mistaken plant identity. It is also common to not have a reaction on your first exposure. Additionally, it is common for people with immunity to spontaneously develop a reaction after repeated exposure. Furthermore, the oils in poison ivy are highly contagious. Even if you are immune, you can easily spread it to someone else.
Urushiol is extremely potent. It only takes 1 nanogram (a billionth of a gram) to cause a rash. Urushiol covering only the head of a pen is enough to make 500 people itch. 1/4th of an ounce is enough to make every person on Earth itch. Urushiol can stay active on a surface for up to 5 years.
Poison Ivy Smoke
Poison ivy should never be burned. The urushiol stays active in the smoke and can cause severe lung inflammation and even death. Even if the smoke is somewhat contained, it can travel for miles and affect others. Anything that causes urushiol to aerosolize such as burning, weed eating, or lawn mowing is extremely risky.
Poison Ivy Rashes
Rashes typically develop within 12 to 48 hours of exposure or 4 to 12 hours for highly sensitive people. A typical rash will be extremely itchy, red, and have blisters. A rash can last anywhere from 1 to 4 weeks. Highly sensitive people may experience swelling until their eyes are shut, blisters erupting on their skin, difficulty breathing, or difficulty swallowing. In these cases, they need immediate emergency care.
There are two options for poison ivy rash treatment, OTC or prescription. For OTC, we recommend hydrocortisone spray and calamine plus spray. The sprays are quicker to apply and the calamine plus spray has an additional analgesic. You can also take an anti-inflammatory drug such as ibuprofen. However, OTC meds are not sufficient for many people due to the persistence of rash, constant need to reapply, and sleep disturbances. If this happens, you can visit a doctor. Doctors will typically prescribe both an oral and topical steroid that is more effective.
Any surface such as clothing, tools, shoes, sheets, and underneath fingernails can be contaminated with urushiol. People commonly believe scratching is what causes the spread of their rash. This is not the case. It is either a contaminated surface or the rash appearing at different rates due to the rate of skin reaction. After the exposure, all surfaces should be thoroughly cleaned. Clothing and sheets should be washed multiple times in hot water.
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