These can be a sore subject for those of us who enjoy the outdoors. Like almost every other peril and medical emergency, a little education and understanding goes a long way to dealing with this itching scratching menace.
Poison ivy, oak, or sumac is found in every state except Alaska and Hawaii, with Nevada having some poison ivy along it’s eastern border with Utah and Idaho having poison ivy along it’s western border with Oregon. All three species and their sub species of plants are very hardy and adaptable. If there is at least eight to ten inches of rain a year, and it is below 4,000 feet, you can find poison ivy, oak or sumac. Interestingly, poison ivy is generally found in the eastern half of the United States, where poison oak is found all over the west coast.
All three of these plants emit a poisonous oil irritant called urushiol. This oil is the toxin in these plants that make you itch. In it’s pure form, the amount that you could fit on the head of a pin could make 500 people very miserable.
Because urushiol is an oil, and not a water based fluid it has some special (or would that be troublesome) qualities. Urushiol does not evaporate, so it can linger for a year. It will cover what ever it comes in contact with, clothing, tools, and even pet hair. Because it is an oil, urushiol vaporizes when it is burned, the vapor is then carried in the smoke and covers everything it comes in contact with (again contaminating it for a year or longer). Urushiol is present on the leaves, stems, and roots of the plant, and is still active even on dead plants that have dried up. It is in a phrase, really nasty stuff.
Poison ivy, oak and sumac all serve a useful purpose. Sure most people will put them on the same list of outdoor annoyances as mosquitoes and flies, but poison ivy, oak and sumac are important to the eco-systems they are present in. The small, white or bluish berries found on the ivies feed a number of birds and small animals. The tangles they form also serve as shelter, and incidentally, most animals are not effected by the irritants found in urushiol oil.
The good news is that poison ivy, oak and sumac are very easy to treat if you identified your contact with the irritating plant within a few hours of the incident. The urushiol oil chemically bonds with the proteins in your skin about 30 minutes after contact. 75% of the population is effected by contact with urushiol, although immunity to urushiol today does not assure immunity tomorrow, and vice versa. Rash symptoms can appear within a few hours but can take two to five days to appear. The rash starts as a red, annoyingly itchy area that starts to swell. The area then gets inflamed and will get covered in clusters of tiny pimples, the pimple eventually merge and turn into blisters. The fluid in the blisters turns yellow, dries up, and becomes crusty. Left completely untreated, this cycle can last as short as five days and in severe cases as long as five to six weeks.
If you come in contact with poison ivy, oak or sumac, or a animal exposed to any of these, or tools, gear, or clothing exposed to any of these, you should wash off with hot water (not so hot that it burns) and strong soap as soon as possible. If you can get washed up in the first six hours, before the first symptoms appear, you have a good chance of avoiding an out break, and an even better chance of minimizing the effects if you do have one.
If you do start to get a rash there is some bad news. There is no anti-toxin available for urushiol. There are products out there that will make you more comfortable, but no specific treatments. Washing in hot water with strong soap within the first 24 hours of exposure, and not scratching can help reduce the length and severity of a reaction.
The rash is not communicable once you get one that is you can’t pass it on to someone else through normal contact. Only the urushiol oil spreads the rash. As blisters start to form over the infected area you should never break the blisters. Breaking blisters can lead to blood poison and generally in medical circles the draining of blisters is frowned upon. You should try to let the infected area breath, if you do wrap it, keep the dressing as clean as possible, weeping blisters are a hot bed for infection.