An encounter with poison ivy while gardening can lead to weeks of itchy misery. (See our previous post on how to identify poison ivy.) All parts of the poison ivy plant -- leaves, stem, roots and berries -- are poisonous to humans. Allergic reaction is caused by urushiol, a caustic chemical in the plant’s sap. Gardeners rarely react to their first poison ivy exposure. However, even the slightest contact with urushiol stimulates the production of antibodies that provoke an allergic reaction during subsequent exposures.
Within 12 to 14 hours of exposure to poison ivy, skin breaks out in patches of red rash characterized by small, fragile blisters. Itching can be intense and last for 3 to 4 weeks. Secondary infection caused by scratching is common and may require antibiotic treatment. Frequent applications of cool, wet compresses, hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion provide temporary relief from itching. If large areas of skin are affected, itching can be relieved by soaking in a cool bath of colloidal oatmeal (available at pharmacies). If itching is intolerable, a large area of the body is affected, rash develops near eyes or inside the nose or mouth or skin becomes infected; contact your physician.
Prevention offers the best protection from poison ivy. Always wear gloves when gardening outside and protect arms and legs with long sleeves and pants. If you come in contact with poison ivy, immediately and thoroughly wash affected skin with strong soap (grease-cutting liquid dish detergent is effective). It is important to act quickly. Ten minutes after exposure washing will only remove 50% of the sap. One hour after exposure, washing is ineffective. Sap can cling to clothing, gloves and garden tools for months. It can spread it from gloves to skin or provoke a reaction the next time you pick up an infected spade. After each encounter, thoroughly wash anything that may have been exposed to poison ivy sap.
Photo by: cygnus921