You don't know it yet, but you just brushed past a vine of poison ivy on the trail. You won't even notice the itching until you're half way home. Tomorrow morning, however, you'll wake up to a very ugly, very itchy rash
Some basic knowledge of the poison ivy plant, mechanisms of exposure and methods of mitigation can help save you from weeks of misery. Look for and avoid plants whose leaves grow from thin stems in groups of three. The plant may contain an oil called urushiol in its leaves, stems, and roots. It is this oil that causes the classic poison ivy rash called contact dermatitis.
The two most common forms of exposure to poison ivy are:
Primary Exposure: Poison ivy comes into direct contact with your skin.
Secondary Exposure: Urushiol oil is deposited onto a surface such as clothing during outdoor activities. This clothing then comes into contact with unprotected skin, transferring the irritant to your body.
Less exposed skin helps prevent primary exposure to the plant. Wearing long pants, long sleeve shirts and gloves will decrease your exposure.
Use caution when moving through thick brush. Poison Ivy may not always stand out, and tends to grow among other plants.
Unless you are positive you have not been exposed to Poison Ivy, it is safer to assume your clothing and exposed skin has been contaminated.
If you suspect poison ivy contamination, wash exposed skin prior to leaving the event. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer and baby wipes work well for this. The quicker you can remove the oil from your skin, the better your chances of avoiding an adverse reaction.
Footwear is a major vector for secondary exposure. Poison ivy can contaminate the sides and soles of boots and sneakers, and transfer onto your hands when you take them off. It is best practice to leave possibly contaminated footwear outside for decontamination to avoid tracking it inside your home.
Remove outer layers of clothing that may have been exposed to poison ivy, carefully turning them inside-out. Avoid touching the outside of the garment.
If you are wearing contaminated gloves, remove them last. Avoid touching exposed skin with contaminated hand wear.
Wash contaminated clothing as you would normally do laundry. Regular laundry detergent is effective at neutralizing and removing urushiol.
Decontaminate gear and boots by spraying with a mixture of 1 tbsp dish soap per gallon of water and rinsing with clean water. Rubbing alcohol also works well for removing urushiol.
When you are done decontaminating your gear, clean yourself as quickly as possible. Wash your entire body thoroughly with plenty of soap and warm water. Scrub with soapy washcloth, loofah or sponge as friction helps soap lift the oil from your skin.
Treatment If you have already developed symptoms of poison ivy exposure, there are a few things you can do to make yourself more comfortable.
If you haven't already done so, decontaminate your body and any surfaces that may have come into contact with the poison ivy. Keep in mind that the urushiol oil responsible for your condition does not evaporate, and can last on hard surfaces for over a year.
Scrubbing with soap will remove oils and moisture from your skin. Overly-dry skin will increase symptoms, try to keep skin hydrated with lotion.
Remember to wash any clothing, bedding and towels that you came into contact with before decontaminating yourself and your equipment.
When you are certain you have cleaned the contaminated body parts, use of topical products can help reduce itchy skin and inflammation.
Calamine lotion or steroid creams containing hydrocortisone may help reduce symptoms.
6. Oral antihistamines such as Benadryl or Claritin work to ease the allergic reaction and reduce itching. Benadryl is especially useful if you are having difficulty sleeping due to discomfort.
7. Make a cool compress with a mixture of water and baking soda and apply to the affected area to help with fast, short-term relief of intense itching8. Try to avoid scratching as this will open a route to infection of the skin. Avoid picking at scabs and popping blisters as this will increase recovery time and chances of scarring.
9.If symptoms are severe or persist for more than a week, consider seeing a doctor. Prescription steroids may be required to resolve the reaction quicker
10. If you experience severe symptoms such as swelling of lips, tongue, mouth or throat along with a rash, and difficulty swallowing, speaking or breathing, seek medical attention immediately as this may be a life-threatening allergic reaction.
Conclusion Anyone who has had to deal with it will tell you poison ivy sucks. This is truly a case where an ounce of prevention outweighs a pound of cure.
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Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons