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Facts and Myths About That Too-common Poison Ivy

August 16, 2006

Poison IvyLittle Rock, Arkansas - For most Arkansans, poison ivy ranks right up there with the three uglies of outdoors – ticks, chiggers and mosquitoes. They don’t like it, they are afraid of it, and they don’t want to be anywhere around it.

In reality, poison ivy is nearly everywhere – deep woods, rural roadsides, mountains, creek banks and in cities. People who spend much time outdoors on their jobs or hiking, hunting, canoeing usually learn to both recognize and avoid poison ivy.

Many on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission staff deal with poison ivy – and avoid it – daily in their work.

To others who get outside for picnics or just rambles in the woods, the old saying of “leaves of three, let it be” can be a reminder, but not a foolproof one. Poison ivy has three leaves in a cluster. But its danger is more widespread, more insidious.

Brush against a poison ivy plant, and you are likely to wind up with a highly irritating rash. The plant leaves a sticky substance called urushiol, and it is potent. Medical experts say that roughly seven of every eight persons are allergic to poison ivy, some much more than others.

But brushing against the plant in the outdoors is far from the only chance of being affected. Others are more difficult to handle and avoid. A pet, a dog or cat, runs through poison ivy then you pet Fido or Fluffy. The pet isn’t affected, but just a tiny bit of that urushiol stuff on your hands can start unpleasant happenings. Pet the dog that has just come in from the edge of some woods then rub sweat from your eyes. Uh-oh – big trouble. Or scratch assorted places on your skin, and there’s more trouble.

Shoes are notorious culprits for causing poison ivy attacks. You step on a poison ivy plant and don’t know it then pull off the shoes that night, and trouble follows.

First bit of action after an outdoors venture: Bathe thoroughly. If you know you’ve encountered poison ivy, use cold water and sponge off the spot. Hot water expands pores, letting urushiol seep in more readily.

When the itchy rash appears, treat the spot quickly with calamine lotion or Caladryl. Taking a Benadryl tablet may reduce the itching. Cortisone creams help many people. Severe cases may require a doctor’s attention and medication by injection.

Myth: “I can walk within six feet of poison ivy and I get the rash.” No, it’s by contact. Urushiol doesn’t jump through the air.

Myth: Scratching the rash or popping the blisters spreads poison ivy all over the body. No, the fluid inside the blisters is not urushiol. But scratching with fingernails can certainly lead to infection.

Myth: “When it’s dry this fall, I’ll burn those poison ivy plants to get rid of them.” Bad idea. Burning releases urushiol in the smoke, and you can breathe it in as well as get it in your eyes.

Myth: “I’m not afraid of poison ivy, but poison oak and poison sumac really affect me.” You’re talking about the same thing. The term poison ivy covers several noxious plants, all of the sumac family.

Myth: “I’ll wait until the leaves are gone this fall then pull out the poison ivy vines.” Another bad idea. Urushiol is also in the vine stems and in the roots. Poison ivy produces small cream-colored berries which birds love but these have that urushiol also.

Carefully use tools like a hoe, rake or shovel to kill poison ivy plants then wash off the tools. Chemicals, herbicides, are available also. But be careful. Use gloves.

Source: Arkansas Game & Fish Commission

Related Links & Resources:
Georgia Wildlife Management Areas - Region 4
Georgia Wildlife Management Areas
Oconee National Forest, Georgia

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