Filed under: Comfort at Camp, Nature & Wildlife, Outdoor Recreation & Hiking, Preparation & Readiness, Taking Along the Family Pet
“Leaves of three, beware of me!” (Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac)
There are probably more stories, home remedies, and mistaken beliefs about Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac than any other plant found in the forest and surrounding countryside. I want to take a few paragraphs and explore some of the myths and facts related to these plants and their common allergen – urushiol oil. I hope you don’t mind if I tell a story along the way to get my point across.
Jerry, Irene, there two children Kelly and Kenny along with their dog, Peaches, were camping near a wooded area. Jerry, the 2 kids and the dog decided to go on an exploratory hike through the woodlands. Irene stayed back at camp. Upon returning, they stripped off the kids clothes, did a through examination for ticks on everyone that was in the party and each took a hot shower in the bathhouse – washing well with Dial soap and then rubbing dry with a clean towel.
Later that night Kenny, the oldest child, began scratching a red spot on his left leg. Before long, the itch and red spots began to spread to his other leg, arms, and chest. Jerry correctly diagnosed the reddening areas as Poison Ivy Rash. But, Irene wasn’t sure. She knew the children had showered immediately after returning to camp and couldn’t figure out how the poison ivy got on Kenny’s chest since it was covered with a shirt.
What Irene did not know, and everyone should know, is that a hot shower is one of the worst things that you can do to yourself after getting the urushiol oil from poison ivy on your skin. The oil is like glue. It is a sticky and invisible goop that softens somewhat in warm to hot water, which allows it to spread to other parts of the body when you shower. Most bath soaps are not strong enough to remove the oil so your washcloth just ends up spreading it around and forcing it down into the pores of your skin.
OK – so what is a better approach? Believe it or not, a COLD shower is a better choice. The force of the cold water will actually begin to rinse off some of the surface urushiol oil. The cold water also closes rather than opens the pores of your skin, so deep penetration of the oil is less likely. While it may be somewhat harsh on your skin, DAWN liquid dishwashing detergent has long been known for its ability to remove greasy and oily substances. Wash from the head down and do not go back up the body with the same washcloth – especially into sensitive areas that were most likely not originally exposed to the urushiol oil (unless you are a nudist running around without shorts ). It is also a good idea to pat dry rather than scrub with a towel.
Other grease or oil removing atonements can be helpful in removing the urushiol oil. Alcohol has some impact but acetone is better. Unfortunately, acetone can be absorbed into the body through the skin. Toxic chemicals like acetone or lacquer thinner should ONLY be used on small areas known to contain urushiol oil – and never on small children. Cold cream or other makeup removers may also be more beneficial than plain soap. Again, use only on areas believed to be contaminated before bathing.
Jerry boasted that he was not sensitive to poison ivy. He said that he even pulled the vines off of trees and never broke out in a rash. But hey – guess what? The next day Jerry had a red, itchy poison ivy rash on his arm. So, what happened? Well, it is like this: Sensitivity to poison ivy or urushiol oil can change as we age. Our body chemistry is different when we get older than it was in childhood – or even a few years ago. Unlike being exposed to a substance to build immunity, being exposed to urushiol oil breaks down immunity – meaning the more you contact the oil and don’t develop a rash, the more likely you are the next time you contact the oil.
Irene also developed a rash on her hands and face about the same time as Jerry – and she did not even go into the woods! So, how did Irene get the rash when she wasn’t even on the hike and couldn’t possibly touch the plant? Peaches, their dog, most likely carried the urushiol oil back to camp on her fur. Irene picked up the oil off of the pets coat. It is also possible that Irene contacted the urushiol oil on the clothes she removed from the children and her husband. Once again, be aware that this is an insidious oil that clings to anything it contacts. It can sit there for years waiting for someone to bring it into contact with his or her skin. It does not dry out or go away over time.
By the time they returned home the poison ivy rash on each of them was under control – thanks to ample applications of a poison ivy anti-itch lotion Irene found in the camp store. Kelly (one of the children) had been lucky and had not developed a rash. But, two days after they returned home she had red, burning, and itchy spots on her arms, legs, and back. Not knowing better, Irene had put all of their camp clothes together in the washer. The hot water she used had softened the urushiol oil enough so that it could contaminate the other clothes in the washer. There was just enough contamination to cause a rash to develop on Kelly.
Poison Ivy grows primarily in the east, poison oak in the west. Each is a woody plant or vine that is very prominent. It can be found in patches or growing up trees and shrubs. Both have one thing in common that helps to identify them – they have three leaves that are shiny. The oil that causes the rash is not only found in the leaves, but in the woody vines as well. Thus, contact with the bare vines in the winter can bring on a rash. Even burning the plant can cause the urushiol oil to be carried as particles in the smoke and vapor that can cause a rash on anyone nearby.
From personal experiences, I have found that the best defense I have against a poison ivy or poison oak rash is to rub my exposed skin with an underarm anti-perspirant deodorant before going into the woods. The deodorant acts as a shield against the oil penetrating the skin and will wash off easily with cold water and Dawn. There is also a product called Ivy Block, made by EnviroDerm Pharmaceuticals Inc. It is FDA-approved for preventing rashes from poison ivy, oak, or sumac. Generally, you have no more than two hours after exposure to get the oil off your skin and avoid a rash. I never wash hiking clothes with other garments. When possible I throw away clothes I know have been contaminated with plants containing urushiol oil – like cotton gloves and socks, rather than trying to wash them. Pants and shirts are washed in a strong detergent – twice – and then the washer is run through a hot water cycle with no clothes. If I wore washable shoes, they go in with the pants, but if they are not washable, I wipe them down with acetone and throw away the rags after the flammable acetone evaporates. I usually follow up with mink oil or polish since acetone will dry out leather. Opps – I forget to tell you something: Acetone will soften or dissolve plastics so be sure your boots or shoes are really leather and not vinyl.
If I should break out in a poison ivy rash I typically treat the area with an over-the-counter mixture of 1% hydrocortisone cream and good old Calamine lotion. If the itch is bad, I can sometimes divert my attention by applying some Ben Gay or other analgesic cream, which also works well with itchy insect bites. Of course, never apply these concoctions to broken or bleeding skin. In those cases, a visit to a medical doctor is well worthwhile.
One last story….. I cut down a Sweet Gum tree a few December’s ago that had poison ivy vines growing up the trunk. I broke out in the worst poison ivy rash ever – all over my body. I was miserable and finally went to the Dermatologist for help. I gave the wood to a friend that said he was not sensitive to poison ivy. He loaded the wood into his pick-up bare handed and left. About a week later, his son broke out with poison ivy all over his face. Our theory is Bill had the urushiol oil on his hands and spread it to the truck steering wheel; Bobby then drove the truck getting the oil on his hands. When he wiped his face with his hands, he developed the poison ivy rash. Good thing his girlfriend was not with him!
“Leaves of three, beware of me!”
HAPPY CAMPING TRAILS TO ALL!
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