Wise Words…..04-26-11

What is Poison Ivy and How Can I Avoid It?

by Dr. Rebecca Wise

First, poison ivy does not contain poison. It is actually an allergen that about 85% of people have a reaction to. There are three different plants that Americans collectively call “poison ivy”: poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. They each contain an oily substance that can cause a rash on the skin if there is direct contact. This oil can be transferred to the skin by shoes, pet’s fur, tools, etc. and can remain potent for up to a year. It can also be present in the smoke of a plant that is burned, say in a campfire.

The most common symptoms for a person who has come into contact with the oil from one of these plants include bumps and blisters that itch, swelling of that area, and oozing or crusty blisters. However, it must be noted that these symptoms are fairly vague and any skin condition should be diagnosed by a physician.

If contact with a poison ivy plant has occurred, the first treatment is to remove the oil from the skin as soon as possible by washing with soap at least 3 times, thoroughly rinsing in between. There are commercial products and alcohol-type wipes that can be purchased for hiking or other activities that make a sink wash impractical. Another important measure is to wash all clothing or other items that may have oil residue on them. People often forget to wash shoes and shoe-laces and re-expose themselves. Be thorough! It must be noted that this condition is not contagious. The only way to get it is to come in contact with the oils. Drainage from the blisters does not contain the oil, so that contact will not spread the rash.

To avoid exposure to poison ivy or other allergen-containing plants, the first line of defense is to know what the plants look like. Educate your family and carry pictures with you on your nature walk. It is generally a low shrub or vine with leaves in clusters of three to nine with green, yellow or red leaves. Wear long sleeves and plants if you will be in an area known to have poison plants. Wash all skin, clothes and shoes if you’ve been in an area containing the plants, because you might not be allergic, but you might spread the oils to someone who is. Don’t burn it or a tree with a poison ivy vine attached to it, even if the vine looks “dead”. It can still contain the oils. Finally, if the rash appears on your face, mouth, eyes or genitals, or if you develop a fever, extreme redness, pus or other worrisome symptoms, contact your physician immediately.

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Wise Words…. is a weekly general medical information column from Dr Rebecca Wise, MEd, PharmD, owner/manager of the Lakeside Health Mart Pharmacy
222 W. Plum St. Edinboro, PA.

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