Itching for relief from villainous vine

City Diary

July 17, 2002|By Jean Packard

WHEN I got the first "rash" on my arm last summer, I could not imagine it was from a plant. This city dweller doesn't even trek the well-worn shortcut through the shrubbery in front of the Govans post office.

When the doctor pronounced that it was poison ivy, I (pardon the expression) scratched my head in puzzlement. I'd hired a yard worker for my rowhouse patch last summer, and the nearest I'd come to an unknown plant was when I lifted the lid of my steel trash can next to the fence, where a vine was making its way over from my neighbor's yard.

As a Girl Scout in New England, I had been taught to watch for tiny, shiny "leaves of three," but this thriving vine didn't match the field guide in my memory. It took several days for the rash to appear, then weeks for it to run its course and make me miserable. Finally, it disappeared in the dead of winter.

I certainly didn't intend to go through that again.

When this season's "wet drought" made the bright leaves flourish to the size of poinsettias, I protected myself with long sleeves, pants legs tucked into socks, garden gloves and experience. In fact, I got out my clippers and started cutting the vine back to the fence. I sure didn't want to have the trash collectors mad at me. I worked at it furiously, then went inside, rested, changed and showered. Unfortunately, the plant worked a lot faster than I did.

I was in denial when the first itching started, but soon realized I was in for an encore. What I didn't realize until many days later was that, typically, successive bouts subject you to intensified suffering. While last summer's exposure brought discomfort, this summer's edition was agony.

Another difference was that, last summer, the reaction I got from people was either incredulity that I had encountered poison ivy in the city or condescension -- I should have known better. This year, I'm getting more sympathy, even from other city folks. There's a huge Ivy League of survivors, as it were, and it seems to be growing.

They console, advise and warn of poison ivy, oak and sumac on the Internet. There are fellow sufferers' discussion boards, and there are elite medical sites. One commercial product has a "Summer Itch Index," where Baltimore is at the same "mild overall concern" level as Philadelphia, New York and Detroit. Poison ivy reaction may be mild only if you aren't exposed to these plants a second time.

At the point of insane itchiness, I found a Web site dedicated to fellow sufferers full of testimonials to a cream called Zanfel. There is a disclaimer that the site is not intended to advertise any product, and there are messages from skeptics. At the manufacturer's Web site, only three locations in Maryland were listed. One was not far.

The shop had a large handwritten sign in its window saying Zanfel was in stock. The pharmacist told me that people come from all over the state and other states to get this cream. It was priced exorbitantly (more than $30 an ounce), but I was desperate and sorely lacking sleep. I bought a tube, went home and tried it.

I don't know if it was indeed the effect of this potion, but there was immediate relief. Perhaps the allergic reaction had run its course and the timing of applying the cream was coincidental with natural relief.

I've learned a lot this time around. My rash is not "contagious." The itch comes from the plant's urushiol oil. I got a lot more oil on myself by cutting the stems of the plant and sitting around resting up in clothes with oil soaking through.

There are products for both prevention and for treatment. I could have reduced the itch -- also allowing me to sleep -- by getting corticosteroids from my doctor. I also could have taken care to thoroughly wash any clothes or tools that came into contact with this potent oil. It only takes a minuscule amount to do a lot of damage, and it can persist on items for years.

Don't believe any folk remedies about ingesting this plant in any way. Various skin reactions may occur because of the variety of things with which we come into contact every day, but poison ivy causes strong reactions in a wide swath of the population. Forest firefighters have had severe reactions from inhaling oil droplets carried by the smoke of the burning plants.

I'm on the mend. I've got an herbicide to combat this bioterrorist's approach toward my trash can. I've got gloves heavier than latex or rubber.

And I've got a lot more knowledge of and respect for this urban invader.

Today's writer

Jean Packard has been a librarian at The Sun for 18 years, is an occasional free-lance writer and lives in the Northwood section of Baltimore.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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