What’s Poison Ivy?
Poison ivy by any other of its names (toxicodendron radicans, rhus toxicodendrom or rhus radicans) would still be the same very common plant that is found just about anywhere in the United States. This plant is a member of the anacardiaceae which comes in two forms. The first form grows low to the ground much like a weed with ropelike vines and in large clusters of plants. The second form grows on the barks of trees like other parasitical plants and it has a fuzzy or hairy appearance. Both forms of poison ivy are characterized by three leaves at the end of each of their stems and they are green in the summer and red in the fall. The plants produce yellow or green flowers with white berries.
The three-leafed stems are not the only characteristic of poison ivy that is worth noting as it also has the innate capability to trigger an allergic reaction in most people. The allergic reactions are activated by the plant’s oily substance that is called urushiol and which readily adheres to the human skin. This oily irritant bonds to the skin when any part of the poison ivy plant (leaves, stem or roots) is touched directly or indirectly by touching anything or anyone which came in contact with the plant. The urushiol oil continues to be active for years. Therefore, coming in contact with dead poison ivy plants or anything that touched them years ago will still have the potential of triggering allergic reactions.
Mangoes are members of the poison ivy family. Thus, the sap of mango trees and the skins of their fruits contain urushiol oil and may trigger the same reactions as are triggered by poison ivy. The same is true of Japanese lacquer trees, poison sumac and poison oak.
The smoke of burning poison ivy plants carries the oil and thus may lead to allergic reaction in those whose skins come in contact with the smoke. If the smoke is inhaled, a similar rash will appear on the lining of the lungs and cause severe pain and potentially life-threatening respiratory dysfunctions. Poison ivy that is ingested or the food that comes in contact with poison ivy is ingest will cause serious damage to internal organs such as the digestive tract (mouth, esophagus, stomach, intestines and colon) airway passages and the kidneys. Rashes due to allergic reactions to urushiol can also affect the eyes and the genitals.
The symptoms of poison ivy or, more accurately stated, the symptom of the allergic reaction to urushiol is a skin rash which is known as urushiol-induced contract dermatitis. Such a rash starts forming within 24 to 48 hours after coming in contact with the poison ivy plant and its oil. The beginning stages of the rash appear as inflamed reddening and swelling of the skin which then sprouts small blisters that are extremely itchy and may, at times, ooze clear fluid. Depending on the severity of the allergic reaction and on the size of the affected area the rash will last at least seven days and, often, much longer. In the most extreme cases of the allergic reaction, the affected individual may suffer anaphylaxis which is also known as anaphylactic shock which can lead to death.
Treating Poison Ivy
The smartest thing to do is avoid poison ivy by staying away from it and by wearing protective clothing such as long sleeved shirts, gloves, long pants and boots. Products such as ivy blockers are also available and they may be helpful.
Unfortunately, it is not always possible to avoid poison ivy and, therefore, knowing how to react is very important. It takes several minutes for the urushiol to bond with the skin. So, washing the contacted area immediately with plenty of cool running water (no soap) and then further cleansing it with rubbing alcohol and finally taking full body shower with warm water and plenty of soap may prevent the allergic reaction and thus the development of the rash. Various solvents such as mineral oils may also help rid the contacted skin of urushiol. Waiting more than ten minutes before going through these cleansing procedures will render them ineffective because the urushiol would have had enough time to permanently bond to the skin.
It is also necessary to cleanse everything (clothing, shoes, hats, bags, equipment, tool and gear, etc.) that may have come in contact with the poison ivy. This can be accomplished by wearing rubber gloves and using plenty of water and rubbing alcohol. Commercially available products such as Zanfel Ivy Cleanse Towelettes and Tecnu Extreme Poison Ivy Scrubs are also effective.
When the rash begins to appear there is no stopping it but there are several over-the-counter medications that may alleviate its itchy symptoms such as hydrocortisone creams, calamine lotion, antihistamines and oatmeal baths. If those remedies are insufficient, medical professionals may prescribe corticosteroids.
Poison ivy is not contagious and touching the rash will not spread it to other part of the body or to anyone else. However, touching or scratching may introduce harmful bacteria which can lead to infections.