I recently got back from a camping trip, and I noticed that the outer edges of my campground was surrounded by poison ivy. Having lived in Japan for the last four years, I hadn’t really seen the stuff in a while, but I knew how to identify it, and I made it a point not to go near it. Now that I’ve been back from my trip for a few days, I’m starting to get little spots of the rash popping up. It’s not nearly as bad as I’ve had it in the past, but it still sucks.
As a child, one of my favorite things to do was run around in the woods that surrounded my grandpa’s property in Brown County, Indiana. It was during that time that I discovered I was severely allergic to poison ivy. More than once, I’ve had large sections of my body covered in the blistering oozy rashes. I have plenty of experience suffering through it, so here’s my guide to poison ivy (not to be confused with Pamela Isley).
What does it look like?
Poison ivy can be a creeping or climbing vine, or it can grow as a kind of shrub. The leaf pattern is quite distinctive and easy to identify: three leaves with the middle one hanging down a bit on a longer section of stem. It’s really pretty, but don’t freaking touch it, or you’ll be covered in a horrible rash. Some people believe that poison ivy has three leaves and poison oak has five. Most of the time, poison oak only has three leaves, though.
How does it work?
Poison ivy produces an oily allergen called urushiol. This oil stays on the leaves, the vine, and all other parts of the plant, and even if the plant itself has died or shed its leaves, the oil will still be on it and can still affect you. Not only that, but it can rub off on animals or objects. I once got it from moving some lumber that had been stacked near poison ivy leaves. The urushiol can even become airborne in the smoke produced from burning poison ivy. My Mamaw, who is also severely allergic, once burned a patch of poison ivy and ended up getting a really bad rash even though she was careful not to ever touch it.
Contrary to what you may have heard, poison ivy rashes are not contagious, and scratching doesn’t make them spread; the rash spreads on its own after exposure, depending on time and severity of the exposure. Some people are less likely to break out in a rash, but that does not necessarily mean that they are immune.
Dammit! I touched poison ivy! Now what?
The best way to treat poison ivy is to stay the hell away from it. If you have come in contact with it, whatever you do, don’t rub your eyes, scratch your nose, or touch your naughty bits. Trust me: you’ll regret it. You can sometimes get rid of the urushiol by washing it off with soap and water or applying rubbing alcohol before it absorbs into your skin.
The rash itself may appear within a few hours, or it may take a few days, depending on the exposure and your body’s natural immune response. Once you’ve got it, try to avoid scratching the rash or breaking the blisters. My Oma used to make me take hot showers when I had a bad poison ivy rash, and that would usually help with the itching for a few hours. Calamine lotion is another common treatment, but I personally hate being sticky with calamine lotion just as much as I hate being itchy from the rash.
After a few days, the rash should “dry up”. If you’ve scratched the rash in the earlier outbreak, it will become scabby. Otherwise, the blisters will go away, and the rash will turn into a dry patch, which will soon heal completely.
If you have a very severe outbreak of poison ivy that covers large portions of your body, or important portions of your body (i.e. your face and/or genitals) go get medical attention.
I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors, and I hope these tips help you to enjoy your outdoor experiences as well. Leave a comment and regale me with your camping stories and poison ivy tales.