August 1, 1999
Poison Ivy Facts and Fictions
by Rebecca Chastenet de Géry
As an enthusiastic Girl Scout, I fearlessly tramped through patches
of poison ivy and proudly emerged unscathed. I believed, erroneously,
that I was immune to the stuff, so the year my "immunity" wore
off, it came as a miserable surprise. I still don't know if I
got poison ivy by burning debris that unbeknownst to me contained
it, or by drying myself off with a towel that had covered a well-camouflaged
patch. But however it came to me, it did so with a vengeance that
made up for all those rash-free summers. My reaction was full
blown. Row after tiny row of itchy, red spots covered me from
head to toe and even crept into my ears, mouth and genitalia.
Within a day, I looked like some sort of swollen, seeping monster,
and relief was found only in occasional baths of Epsom salts.
A cortisone shot eventually provided some relief, but today I
never, ever venture near the evil "leaves of three" if I can,
indeed, "let them be!"
After sorting out poison ivy fact from fiction, I've come to
discover my experience wasn't exceptional. Each year outdoorsy
types across the country wind up with a topical rash of varying
severity-the result of a brush with the abundant plant. The real
culprit is the plant's sap, a toxic oil known as urushiol, that
is found in all parts of the plant: in its leaves, stems, roots,
flowers, and berries. Gently bruising poison ivy is all it takes
to release this vicious sap, which means that a child's ball,
the swipe of a pant leg, or even the passage of a furry animal
is enough to make poison ivy poisonous. What's worse, urushiol
is exceptionally hardy stuff. Contrary to popular belief, poison
ivy doesn't "hibernate" in the winter. And you could get it simply
by removing tainted clothing, petting Rover, or manhandling garden
tools or sports equipment that have come into contact with the
plant. An internal allergic reaction might occur if poison ivy
is burned and the resin is breathed into the lungs. And those
who prefer the Great Outdoors to indoor plumbing beware: Using
a urushiol tainted leaf as toilet paper could prove positively
It turns out no one is immune to urushiol, 70-80% of Americans
are mildly to moderately sensitive to the allergen with about
10-15% at the end of each spectrum. But the good news is that
the dermatitis it produces is a self-limiting condition, meaning
it will disappear on its own within 2 weeks in most instances.
Additional good news is that the poison ivy rash doesn't "spread"
via the rash's blister fluid. Only those body parts that come
into contact with the sap will blister, although the rash may
appear progressively as a result of urushiol's varied rate of
absorption into the skin. If you think you might have been exposed
to poison ivy, wash your skin thoroughly with soap and water and
wash your clothes right away. Rubbing alcohol is even more effective
in removing the oily resin from the skin. For relief of the discomfort
caused by poison ivy, dermatologists recommend the following:
with colloidal oatmeal
lotion (Look for brands without topical antihistamines, which
can cause sensitivity.)
Those suffering from serious cases of poison ivy should contact
their physician who may choose to administer a corticosteriod
Quick Reference: Poison Ivy Facts
ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac all contain the allergen urushiol.
parts of the poison ivy plant release urushiol.
ivy lives year-round in moderate climates. It does not "hibernate"
person doesn't necessarily have to touch the plant to get it.
The resin adheres to clothes, animal hair and other objects
and can be transferred to the skin from an intermediary source.
can occur within 8 hours of exposure, but also can occur up
to two weeks after exposure if the resin remains on the skin
for a prolonged period of time.
contact with poison ivy is suspected, the exposed area of skin
should be thoroughly washed with soap and water as soon as possible.
ability for the resin to remain on the skin (even after washing)
can cause a later eruption.
clothing or pets should also be washed immediately.
alcohol can be even more effective in dispersing poison ivy's
ivy cannot be spread by the rash itself or fluid from the blisters
that form on the skin.
does not spread poison ivy to other parts of the body or to
best defense is to keep away from the plant entirely, but a
non-prescription lotion called bentoquatum (IvyBlock) may be
applied to as a barrier to potential exposure. The lotion is
applied directly to the skin where it dries to form a white