Poison Ivy, My Close Friend

It happened a few days after he had trimmed a bunch of bushes by our road. He broke out in one spot on his arm. Before we knew it, he’d broken out on the other arm, then on both legs. He had boils so bad that he had to call off work because he couldn’t move without something oozing. Sleeping required wrapping all limbs in cloth with rubber bands to absorb the oozing. By the time we finally went to the doctor, we were told it was the worst case of poison ivy they’d ever seen! The prednisone helped and after about a month, the poison ivy had run its course and he was getting back to normal. A little while later that summer, I got poison ivy on my arm. Up to a year later that spot on my arm still itched!

Since then, my husband and I have taken certain precautions to avoid getting poison ivy. We’ve also noticed many misunderstandings related to this issue that we’ll try to clear up. Here’s 13 informational tips to help you avoid getting a bad case of poison ivy!

  1. Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac all contain the same urushiol oil that causes the same itchy, unpleasant reaction. Learn to identify all three—by their shape alone—not simply by color. Poison ivy can be a range of colors from dark green to light green to yellow or red. Its’ color depends on how old the plant is, the time of year, how much sun it gets and a variety of other factors. Do not depend on color alone. (When I refer to a poison ivy reaction, understand that poison oak and poison suman have the same reaction.)
  2. The saying “Leaves of three, let them be” is a good one. Yet raspberries, strawberries, and poinsettias (as well as other plants) also have leaves of three and touching their leaves won’t give you the poison ivy reaction. Poison Ivy’s plant has three leaves with the outer two looking like two mittens palms up and the inner leaf looking like a mitten with a thumb on each side. Poison Oak has three about equal leaves with jagged edges. Poison sumac has about 5-7 leaves. Poison sumac can usually be spotted by the red tufts that bloom from this plant. But those aren’t always in bloom-so be careful!
  3. Washing off urushiol oil is like washing any oil off. It’s tricky and it doesn’t just wash off with any old soap. We’ve found the best results with dawn dish soap. Others will tell you the soap doesn’t matter, but scrubbing and creating “friction” is what counts. After doing yard work, I first take a shower washing everything with dawn dish soap and then after that first wash, use my normal routine/soaps after that.
  4. So how does it spread? Once you’ve washed the urushiol oil off, it’s you’re not contagious and the poison ivy should not spread beyond the affected area. Itching it may make it itch and get irritated more, but the actual itching should not actually spread it. I believe the main reason it spreads on people is because they do not realize where they originally got it and so they keep getting it through that same method. For instance, the oil can get under your nails. Then wherever you scratch, you will be spreading more poison ivy all over! Or if you got it on your clothes and you keep wearing those clothes, you’re going to keep getting it. And until you wash the oil off of yourself, you will be capable of spreading it to others.
  5. I have heard that it takes things like clothing and shoes something like 7-10 years for the poison ivy/urushiol oil to wear off. Therefore, after coming in contact with poison ivy, wash all clothes to be safe. We do laundry often at our house, for this reason!
  6. ANIMALS! Animals, like beloved cats and dogs do not “get” poison ivy like we do where they itch, but they do get it in their fur and pass it on to humans. This has been a huge challenge for us with an indoor/outdoor cat (probably not wise for us). We either have to give the cat a bath with dawn dish soap or rubbing alcohol every time he comes in or not allow him to go outside, if we wish to touch him. Seeing as he hates such baths and loves outside, we’ve chosen a different option: the quarantine option. He’s only allowed in one room or on one couch spot. The couch has a blanket we can wash as needed and simply do not sit in that area. We also have to wash our hands each time we touch the cat. If he rubs on our legs or we need to pick him up, we throw those pants/shirts in the wash and wash our hands/legs/face etc.
  7. How long does it last? A typical case can last anywhere from 1-4 weeks, depending on the severity and the person and the repeated exposure.
  8. What treatments work best? While I’ve heard of Epsom salt or oatmeal baths, who really has time for that? We have found that calamine lotion works well to help with symptoms, but hydrocortisone is a topical steroid that actually stops the spread. We usually do not go to the doctor unless it is on our face. Another reason to go would be if it’s in a private area or if it’s just a really bad case (like described in the beginning). The fear if it’s on your face is that it could get to your eye and attack your retina and make you go blind! So definitely go if it’s on your face! They’ll probably give you prednisone, a steroid pill to stop the spread etc.
  9. Burning poison ivy? Yeah, just don’t do this! We’ve heard horror stories of people pulling out all this poison ivy, then burning it and then getting it in their lungs etc. Avoid at all costs.
  10. Is there a certain time of the year that’s worse than others? Sort of. While the time or season doesn’t always matter, your pores are definitely more open and susceptible to getting poison ivy when it’s hot and you’re sweating.
  11. How soon do I need to wash it off? People vary on this discussion. I’ve heard 20 minutes and I’ve heard 6 hours. The sooner the better! And wash everything you touch in the meantime!
  12. Are some people more susceptible than others? Believe it or not, there’s like 10% of the population who isn’t even allergic to poison ivy! While no studies have been done on this topic, I personally believe adults and those who have had a bad case of poison ivy before are more likely to get it again. It’s not that I think children do not need to be worried, but I’ve seen a lot of kids do a lot of things that would give me or my husband poison ivy, yet they’ve somehow avoided it.
  13. Is it possible to build up an immunity to it? I wish! But it’s not looking like it. Doctors actually say if you get it more than once in the same season, the second time will be worse because your body will flare up trying to fight it faster the second time. While my husband and I each get it about 4 times/year now, we’ve not noticed each time getting worse. However, we have noticed our recovery time seems to improve and speed up with each new case. Perhaps that’s because our body is flaring up faster each time.

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