Into the Outdoors: Poison Ivy, Poison Oak & Poison Sumac


As promised last week, we are going to follow up on poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac.  It may seem as though I write about this a lot but, the fact of the matter is that I fear these plants more than anything else in the outdoors. Of course, I am HIGHLY sensitive to urushiol, the toxic substance the plants contain. A bad dose of the rash can send you to the doctor, or even the hospital. My dad once missed six weeks of work with an exceptionally severe case.

The members of the evil trio are fairly easy to identify.  Certain other plants do, however, resemble them. The old adage, “Leaflets three, let it be,” is actually a pretty good one. The most common lookalike is the immature box elder, although there are others as well. The real problem with identification is that, for example, poison ivy can take a number of forms. It can be a ground cover, a vine or a bush. It can, in fact, easily show up in your yard.  How?  The berries, while toxic to mammals, can be eaten by birds. When they relieve themselves, the seeds are deposited. It should also be remembered that the leaves are not always jagged, but can have smooth edges as well.

There are a number of ways in which one can contract the horrible rash.  The most obvious, of course, is direct contact.  If you see a patch, stay out!  If someone is burning the stuff, avoid the smoke.  Your favorite pet can also give you a dose of the evil.  A couple of times, I have gotten a mild case from my outside cats rubbing against me.  The oil gets on their fur, and then onto you.

If you are exposed to one of the plants, and are aware of it, there are steps you can take to prevent the reaction from taking place.  Just washing with regular soap won’t do the job.  One of the best alternatives is Fels-Naptha soap.  Actually a laundry soap, it seems able to cut through the urushiol and wash it away.  If I think I have been exposed, I shower with it from head to toe. I have also heard that Blue Dawn dish liquid, which is used to clean birds after oil spills, is also very effective.  Just whatever you do, get off off of your skin as quickly as you can.

The oil can also stick to your clothing for a long time.  If I know that I have been exposed, I shave some Fels-Naptha into the washer when washing my clothes.

Here is something interesting. Jewelweed, which often grows close to poison ivy, is a rather effective remedy.  Check it out on the Internet.

There are people out there who claim that they don’t get poison ivy, etc.  You can start getting it after years of seeming immunity. My brother in law was in his seventies without getting it, even after many exposures.  Finally, however, he got it in his early eighties, and had a terrible time getting over it. There is no such thing as total, lifelong immunity.  Just be careful, and stay away from it.  It is said that redheads, like me, and those with light complexions, are more susceptible.  I believe that to be true.

Be very cautious of these plants. Learn to recognize them, and stay away from them. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


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