Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Poison Ivy

Few plants in nature illicit as strong of a reaction as poison ivy, both figuratively and literally. This dreaded plant is native to North America and Asia and may grow as a vine, small shrub or a small tree-like plant. Leaves occur in a cluster of three arranged alternately from each other. This leaf arrangement explains the popular saying “Leaves of three, leave it be.”

Leaves may be elliptic or egg-shaped and the edges may be smooth, lobed, or serrated. In the spring tiny greenish colored blooms appear and by autumn small white berries are present, “berries white, run in fright.” Vines are rope-like and hairy. “Hairy vine, no friend of mine.” This is a more accurate way to identify the vine, as no other vines in our region are covered in hair, but there are many plants with three leaf configurations, and many are mistaken for poison ivy. 

So why the dread? If you have ever experienced a poison ivy rash, you would know the answer, but for the few who have not they cannot imagine. The sap within the plant tissue is made up of a compound of multiple chemicals, the most obnoxious of these is urucshiol (pronounced yer-OO-shee-all). This compound binds to the skin causing severe itching, which later develops into reddish inflammation, bumps, and often blisters. Large quantities of urucshiol has the potential to suppress the body’s production of prostaglandin, a fatty acid which aids in the body’s ability to battle inflammation. A full-blown immune reaction occurs, and white blood cells go to battle within the affected cells and cause the often-extreme contact dermatitis we experience. In extreme cases anaphylaxis may occur, requiring immediate medical care.

One of the most diabolical aspects of urucshiol is how little is required for a reaction. An amount smaller than a grain of salt can lead to a breakout. More than 90% of people are allergic to this compound and approximately 350,000 people annually experience reactions strong enough to require medical care. There is no way to know the accuracy of how many individuals are affected each year as most cases never get reported. A common myth individuals have in association with poison ivy is the notion they are not allergic to it. This simply is not true, or at least very unlikely. Just because you have been fortunate to not experience a reaction from exposure to the plant, does not mean your luck will continue. Poison ivy is one plant that breaks down your immune system, therefore the more you are exposed to it the more likely you are to have a reaction. I for one used to brag about not being allergic simply because I was arrogant enough to believe that because I had never had a reaction that I therefore never would. Did I ever learn a lesson the hard way! I had my first major reaction in my thirties and now find myself battling reactions multiple times each year. Lesson learned! 

Another commonly held belief is that your blistering, weepy sores will spread the rash. This is not the case. Your body is simply producing the fluid as an immune response to exposure. The appearance of a spreading rash instead indicates that some areas of exposed skin received more poison and reacted sooner than other areas of your skin. Or it may indicate a reinfection from touching something that came in contact with the oils. This could be a yard tool such as a hoe or shovel or perhaps a doorknob, faucet, or other surface you touched inadvertently and left the oils behind. This creates a real potential for repeated contact, thus extending the length of time of the rash. Wipe down surfaces with bleach wipes or other commercial cleaner if you know you’ve come in contact with poison ivy. Urucshiol has a long life on surfaces and may carry the potential to reinfect for many years after exposure to the oils. Even dead plants may infect individuals, years after they were killed. This is one determined plant!

Never burn poison ivy, this creates a serious health risk. The oils will rise with the smoke and may be inhaled, and a rash will appear in your lungs causing extreme pain and the potential for respiratory failure. Eating the plant has its own set of risks. One would think we should not have to even consider this warning, but there are individuals out there that swear by eating young, tender, newly developed leaves (one per week for nine weeks) you will build your immune system and give yourself protection from a reaction if exposed. Medically we know ingestion can affect the mucus lining of the mouth and stomach, causing severe stomach pain and may lead to serious digestive system issues. Is it worth the risk to your health to attempt such a daring experiment in the hope of building an immunity to this plant? Wouldn’t avoiding the plant be a better option?

Generally, the rash appears within a week of exposure, but for some it may happen in mere hours. I for one fall into the category of the latter. I can touch the plant and by the end of the day I have a rash! How do we find relief? If you know you have come in contact with poison ivy, wash with cold water and soap as quickly as possible. You may try rubbing alcohol too, as I have heard this works well. I’ve read jewelweed works well as an alternative for dissolving the oils on your skin if you find yourself away from a water source and know you’ve been exposed. Jewelweed almost always grows near poison ivy…coincidence? Maybe not.

Once the rash appears, try not to scratch the maddening itch, it will increase the potential for infection. Applying calamine lotion or a corticosteroid may provide relief. Another potential product to try is Burow’s Solution, made up of aluminum acetate.

You can also create your own treatment using natural elements. 


Recipe for Poison Ivy Rash Remedy

1 bottle witch hazel

5-10 jewelweed plants (depending on how much you want to make)

1 mason jar

Crush the jewelweed plant to release juice, then chop or tear and fill the jar loosely. Once in jar continue crushing with pestle or your fingers to release more juices. Add witch hazel and store in cool dark place for 3 weeks. Drain through a sieve to collect the liquid and throw all plant material away. Pour liquid into jar making sure no plant material remains. Apply liberally to ivy rash using a cotton ball, up to 5 times a day. It will greatly speed up your healing time.

These days we hear a lot about climate change with many individuals feeling very passionate about the effects humans are having on the atmosphere and weather conditions, still others call it hype. No matter what side of the aisle you fall on, we know through research that current higher levels of CO2 in our atmosphere is changing poison ivy. This plant is growing more vigorously and has doubled in abundance in the past fifty years. The very chemical balance of the plant is also changing in potency causing an increase in urucshiol which has nearly doubled since 1960! It will only continue to increase with more atmospheric carbon. 

With all the negative aspects attached to poison ivy, is there a positive? Many ask how is this plant beneficial? I personally think this is the epitome of human arrogance. This questions alludes to the presumption that all things in the natural world are designed to benefit humans. Nature does not work that way. We are but one component in the natural world. Deer, horses, goats, and other animals all eat the leaves of poison ivy with no ill effects. Crows, songbirds and raccoons feast on the berries and honeybees partake of nectar in the spring. If you could ask them you might get a more balanced answer to the plants benefits.

While avoiding poison ivy each time we venture outside may be an impossibility, it doesn’t have to be a deterrent. If nothing else, poison ivy teaches us to be observant of our surroundings. If you find yourself in the predicament of being in the middle of the dreaded ivy vine, simply take a deep breath, wash with cool water, and wait. Maybe it won’t be so bad after all.