Beware the poison plant Ivy: The ubiquitous plant secretes an oily substance that causes agonizing itching and oozing in susceptible people

50 million Americans suffer from it each year.

August 02, 1998|By Stacey Patton | Stacey Patton,SUN STAFF

Most of us know the age-old saying "Shiny leaves of three, leave them be."

Yet most of us know someone who has suffered from not heeding that saying. Fifty million Americans ooze and itch from an allergic reaction to poison ivy every year.

Sharon Lukens, 41, of Jarrettsville says she knows what it looks like, takes precautions when gardening - and still gets a bad case at least four times each summer.

"I've had it on my face, in between my fingers, ankles and behind my knees," she says. "And once I think I've gotten rid of it, then it appears somewhere else."

She blames the fact that her home is surrounded by woods, and: "I also think age has something to do with it. The older I get, it seems like I become more susceptible to these sort of things."

Why does the plague of poison ivy seem so inevitable?

Poison ivy is present just about everywhere: on sandy or rocky shores of streams, rivers and lakes, in thickets along the borders of woods. The plant likes to climb rough surfaces up to 6 feet, and its leaves spread out 10 to 15 inches from the stem.

A plant similar to poison ivy is poison oak. But poison oak leaves have rounded tips, whereas poison ivy tips are pointed. They both have the same agonizing affect.

"People don't know what to look for," says Dr. Grant Anhalt, acting director of dermatology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "Poison ivy looks similar to other weeds, so when they're gardening they pull up vines and think they're regular weeds."

When poison ivy first emerges in spring, it is reddish. During the summer, it is green with red veins running through the leaves. In autumn, just before the leaves die, it has shades of yellow, orange and red.

Poison ivy has an oily sap called urushiol that creates blisters and inflammation. Direct or indirect contact with clothing, tools or animals that have touched the plant sets off a skin eruption, depending upon the sensitivity of the individual. The oil can maintain its allergen status for more than two months.

The allergic reaction may not occur at the first exposure. When it does, the reaction usually develops within 12 to 48 hours after contact, though the time may be as short as four hours or as long as 10 days.

Contrary to common belief, scratching and oozing of the blisters will not spread them, because urushiol is not present in the blister fluid. But if urushiol has not been completely washed off the skin, touching that area and then another part of the body can spread the rash.

"In the old days, we used to use Lava soap to get the resin off," said Dr. Charles Shubin, 57, director of the Children's Health and Family Care Center at Mercy Medical Center. "You don't have to be that extreme today. A good regular bar of soap will do."

Shubin says that usually poison ivy is not dangerous, but it can be fatal if it's inhaled.

When Lukens gets an allergic reaction, she heads to her dermatologist, who usually prescribes topical lotion. "I get temporary relief," she says. "But it's a real test of patience not to scratch."

Though scratching doesn't spread the rash, too much of it can cause nerve damage.

Relief can be found in over-the-counter topical steroid creams and antihistamines. But Shubin cautions that home treatments offer marginal relief at best. He stresses that oral steroids are the only truly effective treatment for severe cases.

In 1996, the Food and Drug Administration approved a cream called Ivy Block, designed to help ward off poison ivy. The lotion dries into a claylike coat and prevents urushiol from penetrating to the skin.

"But it seals up the skin," says Shubin. "Sweating inside clay can be very uncomfortable."

If you come in contact with poison ivy, you should wash your skin as soon as possible with cold water to minimize the severity of the rash and prevent the spread of the urushiol to uninfected parts of the body.

Decontaminate clothing by laundering with soap or detergent.

Agriculture scientists from the Carroll County agriculture extension office say the best way to rid gardens and back yards of poison ivy and oak is through weed sprays such as Roundup. Roundup destroys roots and keeps plants from growing back. The pesticide can be found in garden and hardware stores.

Poison Ivy Tips

Poison ivy makes life miserable for up to 50 million Americans annually. Eight-five percent of those who come in contact with poison ivy develop a reaction to it. Here are suggestions to help you deal with poison ivy:

* When hiking or gardening, wear pants and gloves.

* Wash hands and clothes immediately after contact.

* Give your pet a bath if there is any chance the animal has been in contact with poison ivy.

* Use over-the-counter topical steroid creams such as Cortaid, Lanacourt, calamine lotion or zinc oxide.

* Try oatmeal baths, ice compresses, jewelweed washes.

* Run hot water over the rash for a half a minute or so to relieve itching.

* Trim nails to keep from scratching.

* For worst cases, see your doctor, who may prescribe oral steroids.

Pub Date: 8/02/98

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