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  Poison Ivy Survival Guide
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How can a few drops of oil spoil a great trip?

Poison Ivy

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Photo courtesy of John Byrd

If it’s urushiol oil - oil secreted from the poison ivy plant - it’s pretty easy to figure out. In fact, you may be one of millions of people who found out the hard way that a poison ivy rash is one vacation souvenir you can live without! So before you pack up for your week in the Great Outdoors, check out this quick primer on how to spot poison ivy and deal with its effects.

How it spreads

Poison ivy is easy to avoid if you know what to evade. The problem is not the plant itself, but what’s inside the plant’s stems, leaves, berries, and roots.

When the delicate leaves of the poison ivy plant are damaged by contact from people, insects or animals, it exudes urushiol oil (pronounced “oo-roo-shee-ohl”).

Once this oil contacts the skin of a sensitive individual, it rapidly penetrates the outer layer of dry skin (the epidermis) and gets into the living layer (the dermis) where the allergic reaction occurs.

It doesn’t take much oil to make you miserable. If you barely brush your skin against the plant, a rash of red pimples, even blisters, can break out. Physcians term this reaction “contact dermatitis.” In response to the irritating oil, the body produces histamines, the substance that causes an overabundance of mucuous when you have a cold. In the case of a poison ivy rash, the fluid shows up as blisters in the skin. (Note: The fluid is not the oil, rather the body’s attempt to wash it away.)

Unfortunately, the oil is very transferable. You don't have to come into direct contact: touching your skin against clothing, pets, or even inanimate objects on which the oil has transferred can cause a reaction. See Poison Ivy Facts and Myths for more information on how it’s spread.

Urushiol Oil Fast Facts from the
Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac Information Center
Along with poison oak and sumac, poison ivy is responsible for the most common plant allergies in the United States
First published records of poison ivy dated in the 1600s; “Poison Ivy” was coined by Captain John Smith in 1609
One billionth of a gram (a nanogram) can cause a rash, but most people come into contact with about 100 nanograms!
500 people could itch from the amount covering the head of a pin
Specimens of urushiol oil hundreds of years old have caused dermatitis in sensitive people
The oil normally stays active for 1 - 5 years on any surface
It’s name is derived from urushi, a Japanese word meaning “lacquer.”

Stopping poison ivy before it stops you

You know you don't want to get too close to poison ivy. But how do you avoid it when you’re hiking, fishing, camping, and doing all the other things you love to do in the woods? Knowing the plant’s appearance and habitat is your greatest protection.

Unfortunately, poison ivy is an adaptable plant that may appear as little sprouts, vines, or bushes with shiny green or dull green/brown leaves. Seeing one plant is an indication that more will be in the area-usually in a proverbial “patch” characterized by marginal soil and drainage.

The good news is that all varieties share a common trait: poison ivy leaves grow in clusters of three, with two leaves growing opposite on the stem and the third at the top. Just be aware of your surroundings and steer clear of anything resembling poison ivy.

Sounds simple enough, but just knowing the plant’s appearance won’t be enough if you’re traveling through areas rife with poison ivy. You’ll have to “dress defensively” by wearing clothing that minimizes your skin’s exposure to poison ivy plants. Long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and hiking boots will help, as will gloves. Coincidentally, the same type of clothing worn to prevent poison ivy will also help protect you from ticks, which in some cases can cause lyme disease.

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