KINGSTON, R.I. – July 20, 2010 – A golfer spies his ball lying a few feet in the rough. He hesitates to retrieve it, wondering if poison ivy lurks in his path. But then he makes a mad dash to grab it, thinking, “If I’m fast enough, maybe it won’t hurt me.” Across town, a homeowner is trimming some bushes at the edge of his yard, but unbeknownst to him, poison ivy vines wind their way through that brush.
Even if the golfer moves quickly, that brush with poison ivy leaves could be enough to trigger a reaction, and the homeowner is probably exposing himself when he cuts through the vines.
But Fred Procopio, medical director of the University of Rhode Island’s Health Services, says if the two take quick action, they might spare themselves a very uncomfortable few days or weeks.
“If they wash with soap and water as soon as possible, they might prevent a major reaction,” the doctor said. “The quicker the better, but even within 2 hours, there is a major benefit. But don’t scrub hard—that will only aggravate the skin. Also, you should clean well under the fingernails, and clothes that might have touched poison ivy should be thrown in the wash immediately.”
Poison ivy reactions are caused by a compound called urushiol, which is found on the fruit, leaves, stems, root, sap and vines of the plant. It’s an insidious plant that can cause problems even in the winter, when the leaves are long gone. In addition, the smoke from burning poison ivy can also cause reactions.
But it’s only a myth that someone with a rash can spread poison ivy to another person. Touching or breathing in urushiol, or touching the plant’s oil that is left on a tool, clothing or a pet’s fur are the only ways to catch poison ivy.
“When I practiced in Vermont, I used to see winter poison ivy outbreaks among hikers and those who cut and harvested firewood. Many people are unaware that they could release poison ivy sap when cutting wood that is enveloped in poison ivy vines.
“If washing doesn’t take place soon enough, outbreaks can occur from four hours to four days later,” Procopio said. “Once the rash begins, it can continue to occur for up to 21 days on other parts of the body where the oil contacted the skin.”
So what can you do once the rash appears?
“Cool, wet compresses help dull the itching, as do calamine lotions,” Procopio said. “Some people use topical products with Benadryl or anti-bacterials in them, but they can make the skin overly sensitive.”
During the warm weather in South County, multiple dips in the ocean can work wonders, Procopio said. “The cold salt water dulls the itch and dries the rash. If you can’t get in the ocean, try soaking in salt solutions.”
He advises against taking a dip in a lake or pond because bacteria in the water could lead to infection.
When should you go to the doctor?
“You go to your doctor when the symptoms interfere with the things you need to or want to do,” Procopio said. “If the reaction is affecting the respiratory system or gets into the eyes, a trip to the physician is usually in order. Also, watch for signs of infection, which often accompany a major reaction. Patients are hospitalized in these instances.”
Health care providers may prescribe steroid creams or steroid pills or, if the reaction is severe enough, may also administer an injection.
And unlike most illnesses, poison ivy is easier to fight off as you age. “As we get older, we are less susceptible.”