It’s Gonna Take an Ocean of Calamine Lotion: Poison Ivy Season Is in Full Swing

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by Kathy Johnson

Poison ivy
Poison ivy

Some people will tell you they aren’t allergic to poison ivy—and that may be—or they simply may not have had enough exposure to the urushiol, the oily allergen found in poison ivy. Over time they, too, may be come sensitive. Many others swear they only have to be in proximity or “breath the same air,” and they will break out.

Is it a trailing vine, a bush, a climbing vine? Yes, all of those. Most people are familiar with the warning “leaves of three, let it be,” but how about “raggy rope, don’t be a dope,” or “hairy vine, no friend of mine”? They’re all good advice and all accurate descriptions of some type or form of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). This clever plant has chameleon like qualities, looking different in different situations, but is extremely toxic for most people in all forms.

In a single locale, poison ivy can be found in all forms, trailing vine, climbing vine and bush. The climbing vines can actually look attractive and may even produce a yellowish or greenish-white bloom, but its toxic qualities are only amplified by its size. Older climbing vines can grow as tall as 15 feet or more onto trees creating massive vines several inches wide with hairy tendrils attaching to the trees. Those same vines are capable of sending out lateral stems that can look like tree limbs and may bloom sometime from May to July. Those same plants can produce berries that birds and wildlife eat and spread—and the remains of those seeds, once they pass through their digestive system, are just as toxic as they were on the plant.

In fact, all portions of the plant—dead or alive—are toxic and can cause a serious allergic reaction, itching rash and blisters. Contrary to myths about the plant, scratching the blisters does not spread poison ivy and it is not contagious. These myths survive because the urushiol can be difficult to remove from clothing and skin and touching unwashed skin or contaminated clothing can cause someone else to break out. Washing exposed clothing with cold water as quickly as possible and using some of the soaps (Poison Ivy Soap or Tecnu) can help remove the oil. Both these products can be found at area drug stores, outdoor shops or hardware stores. At Blue Ridge Builders Supply a door sign says “Stop the Itch with Poison Ivy Soap Sold Here.” The soap’s website (www.poisonivysoap) includes recommendations from individuals and businesses including Rockfish Gap Outfitters in Waynesboro, “Our customers have told us that Poison Ivy Soap has saved their day. One of our employees says Poison Ivy Soap works because he knows that Jewelweed is the natural antidote.”

The soap contains Jewelweed (I. pallida), said by folk medicine experts to aid in the cure and comfort of poison ivy rashes. A clinical study done in 1958 found that in 108 of 115 cases the jewelweed preparation was effective. Other studies have not been as positive in their results, but folk medicine and natural product supporters offer high praise for products containing jewelweed (a member of the Impatiens family).

“Once you are exposed, what is thought to happen is your body can take a few hours to 10 days or more to react. React usually means blisters, burst or itch. Some studies show (reaction) even after 21 days,” said Dr. Mark A. Lepsch, with Northridge Medical Center in Charlottesville.

Dr. Lepsch agrees it is not contagious. “You really can’t spread it. The oil on the skin could spread it. Once it is there, it’s there.”

Hot water activates the urushiol and for that reason cold water is recommended—the sooner the better. Carefully removing all clothing if it has come in contact with the ivy is also important. Pulling a T-shirt over the head inside out may cause more of the oil to come in contact with the skin—so careful removal is important. Contaminated clothing should be kept separate from anything else and a quick wash in cold water should remove the offending oils.

Those with serious outbreaks may want to contact their physician if an over-the-counter product like calamine lotion (still a popular coolant for the rash) or Ivy-Dry (another product designed to reduce the itch, irritation and redness) aren’t enough.

“The only reliable thing that will decrease it is steroids,” Dr. Lepsch said. “You start with topical crème or ointment. Cortaid or Cortisol over the counter is too weak. If it breaks out in enough spots, a doctor may prescribe oral medication,” meaning steroid pills. Scratching it can cause a secondary infection from dirt or other things under the fingernails. “If you can, get it off,” is his recommendation.

So if you can’t touch it without breaking out, how do you get rid of the plants or vines? Weed whacking is never a good idea. That will throw bits of plant and toxic oil all around the area, possibly coming in contact with bystanders, pets, your pants or legs, even fence posts that will host the oil for years to come. There are a number of products on the market now that kill the plant.

Keith Allen with BRBS recommends The Poison Ivy & Tough Brush Killer by Roundup. “I know it works because I’ve had to use it.” That product, and others such as Ortho MAX Poison Ivy and Tough Brush Killer, are available at big box stores as well as local shops and hardware stores and can do a good job of killing poison ivy.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that it is just as contagious dead. In fact, some studies have shown that the urushiol can still be active 20, 30 even 100 years after the plant has died.

Killing the plant is just the beginning. Removal is the only real answer. But that takes planning. First, dress for the part, gloves, long-sleeved shirt, long pants, socks and shoes, goggles and a breathing mask is also a good idea. Second, using clippers or something similar cut the poison ivy down and using a gloved hand holding outside of a trash bag pick the ivy up with the “inside” of the bag and force it down inside. Digging the roots is also a good idea if you have a small quantity and spraying the plant beforehand doesn’t hurt either. If there is a large quantity of plants, cutting them as short as possible and spraying with one of the plant poisons is a good way to control the spread.

In smaller quantity, when all your ivy is bagged, send it to the dump or landfill. Do not compost or shred it. Never burn poison ivy. The smoke from the oil can get into your lungs and cause damage internally.

Remember: “one, two, three—don’t touch me.”