Poison Ivy Season
by David Robson
May 29, 2016

Summer campouts, nature walks and hiking expeditions can be a lot of fun. But those who are susceptible to poison ivy may walk away from the experience with some painful souvenirs, warned a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"Many times, individuals with poison ivy will re-expose themselves by wearing contaminated clothing again without laundering or dry cleaning," said David Robson. "This is mostly true of outerwear such as jackets, hats, and gloves that don't normally need cleaning after each use.

"When you wash clothing that has been contaminated with poison ivy, be sure to wash it separately. If it goes into the washer with the rest of the family's laundry, it may contaminate the rest of the wash."

Pets are another possible carrier of poison ivy. If pets are allowed to wander in wooded areas, their fur may carry the plant's sap for a long time. A soap-and-water bath is just about the only way to get the contaminants out of the pet's coat.

"Garden tools, too, may spread poison ivy," he said. "Again, a thorough scrubdown with soap and water is the only practical way to prevent recontamination."

Not everyone who comes into contact with these plants will be affected by them. Only those who are allergic to them will develop the itching, water blisters and rash associated with the allergy.

"Many people claim they are immune to poison ivy’s oil," said Robson. "Actually, that may be true to a point.

“People may gain or lose sensitivity to these plants over time, so past immunity is no guarantee that you will not develop an allergic reaction in the future. In fact, as one ages, susceptibility becomes more likely."

However, eating the leaves in the spring will not make you less susceptible later on as some people claim. It’s just not a wise practice as you can develop rashes inside your mouth and throat.

"If you run across poison ivy in your yard, neighborhood park, woods or along the roadside, stay away from it if possible," he said. The vine-like “leaves of three” are easily recognizable, though there are some trees and shrubs with similar-looking leaves.

If you do get the clear, oily sap on yourself or your clothing, wash with soap and water as soon as you can. Most experts give you a five-minute window for reducing the injury potential."

There are some products on the market that can be applied to the skin before coming in contact with poison ivy. These create a barrier, but time and sweat can diminish the effectiveness of the products.

Whatever you do, don't scratch the affected area, don't touch your eyes or mouth, and don't use the bathroom until you're sure you have all the sap washed off.

The symptoms of poison ivy include itching, burning, and red "water blisters" -- as well as headache and fever. These symptoms may appear only a few hours after exposure to the plants or they may take up to seven days.

"If you think you've been in contact with poison ivy, it's important to wash yourself -- and your clothing -- right away," he emphasized. "Plain old soap and water -- and plenty of it -- is your best bet for removing the sap from both skin and clothing. If you wait more than a few minutes to wash the sap from your skin, there's little you can do to prevent an allergic reaction."

After you've washed thoroughly, apply rubbing alcohol to the affected area. This may sting a little, but it will neutralize any sap that may remain on your skin.

If a rash does develop, paint it with calamine lotion to relieve the itching. And if the rash is severe -- or if it affects the mouth or other sensitive areas of the body – seek medical attention immediately.

"Contrary to popular opinion, poison oak and poison sumac are seldom found in Illinois," said Robson. "Poison ivy can take on several forms, all of which have the traditional three-leaflet leaf. Poison oak and poison sumac are traditionally found in other parts of the United States."

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