When I was ten years old, I got two unforgettable cases of poison ivy. A nature girl, I spent spare time out of doors, digging in the dirt, and climbing trees and fences. In the spring of that year, I was digging a hole (purpose, unknown) and found some pesky roots in the way. In pulling up the poison ivy roots, I released urushiol oil all over my hands and next day, my hands were covered with huge weeping blisters. I missed a week of school, as the medication of choice at that time was calamine lotion, which was totally ineffective. That winter, I left a Christmas party to hike and climbed a vine-covered fence. In climbing the fence, I again exposed my hands to urushiol, and missed another week of school with the misery and pain of poison ivy. Because at least 75% of people react to poison ivy, you might know what I’m talking about.
I took these experiences as a personal affront, and swore a vendetta on this innocent plant. Its urushiol oil covering conserves moisture in hot Maryland summers, and is not a defensive measure. Its green leaves are commonly enjoyed by wildlife such as deer and bears, and birds relish the seeds in the fall. In fact, birds which consume the seeds are responsible for the sudden appearance of the plant in your back yard.
Because the plant flourishes where light is prolific in the forest edges, not in the shade, more poison ivy grows in Maryland in 2015 than before the European colonists cleared the trees. And we may be seeing more of it in the future. A Marine Biological Laboratory study found that the plant is highly sensitive to greater carbon dioxide levels. With climate change bringing rising CO2 levels, poison ivy will enjoy an ideal growing environment.
Depending on the severity of the rash and the location on your body, a case of poison ivy rash can make people a little itchy or endanger their health. Calamine cream may help minor rashes. Medical help should be sought for heavy rashes, swelling (especially on the face and genitals), or breathing problems. Strong medications and even hospitalization may be necessary.
Prevention always beats treatment. Learn (and teach your kids) what how to avoid skin contact with urushiol-covered plants. The American Academy of Dermatology’s website includes excellent photographs of poison ivy, oak, and sumac, all of which produce urushiol.
Wear clothes with long sleeves & long pants when you spend time in the woods or in the garden, removing and washing the clothes after use. After suspected exposure (gardening, walks in the woods), immediately wash a soap or cream such as Tecnu or Zanfel to remove the urushiol. If your pet has run through poison ivy, she won’t get a rash- but she can bring the rash to you, so wash her, too.