Larry Lyons: What you should know about poison ivy

Published 8:38 pm Thursday, August 5, 2010

lyonsIt’s amazing how poison ivy has recently run amok. When I was a kid it was something you watched out for but not a big deal. Now the freakin’ stuff is everywhere. If you’re among the 70 percent of the population that’s sensitive to poison ivy that’s not good.

Urushiol is an oil in the sap that causes the rash. It’s some seriously potent stuff and viable year around. Only one billionth of a gram can cause a rash. The amount on the head of a pin could give 500 people the itches. Just a quarter ounce would be enough to afflict everyone on earth.  Don’t be too cocky if you’re in the 30 percent group that doesn’t react to poison ivy. Repeated exposure or changes in your body chemistry can flip you to the other side.

Urushiol is extremely stable. Poison ivy remnants over two centuries old have still inflicted the rash. On inert items such as shovels, saws, boots and doorknobs it can stay viable up to five years. It can be transferred many times from the same object as well as spread from one object to another. For instance, say it’s on your shoes. You take your shoes off outside and now it’s on your hands. Entering the house it’s now on the doorknob, the refrigerator handle when you get a beer, the TV tuner, sink handle, the dog and so on until you thoroughly wash your hands. The next time anyone touches any of those things it starts all over again.

Humans are the only animals susceptible to poison ivy.  Within a half hour of contact, urushiol begins to bind to our skin and continues over the next several hours. The sooner it’s washed off the better your chances of avoiding or lessening the effects. After about six hours the marriage is complete and you’re toast. It usually takes about 24 hours for the dreaded rash to develop but can be several days.

Early on soap and COLD water is usually sufficient for removing urushiol. Never use hot water as it opens the skin’s pores and the urushiol pours in. Rubbing alcohol is also effective if it doesn’t irritate your skin. Many folks swear by bleach but that can have damaging side affects. Probably the most effective are the commercial concoctions. One of the best known is Tecnu. I’ve been using it for several years and haven’t had poison ivy since and I can break out just thinking about it. Whatever you use, timeliness is the key.

Once you have poison ivy you’re in for a miserable several weeks. I’ve been disappointed with the over the counter medicines and become fascinated with natural remedies. I haven’t had poison ivy lately so haven’t tried any of them but I’ll pass a few on.

The most prevalent folk medicine for poison ivy (and all skin rashes) is jewelweed, also called touch-me-not.  Apparently the ju-ju is in the juices of the stems. Prescriptions vary from simply crushing the stems and rubbing them on the rash to boiling all parts of the plant in water, often with Aloe Vera, to make a lotion. Reportedly the brew can be frozen for off season use. Reports abound of instant relief and cure within hours or a day or two.

Aloe Vera on its own is also highly recommended.  Skin the fleshy leaves and rub it on. Rhubarb has its following.  Simply break the stem and rub it on the rash.  Instant relief and cure within a couple days they say. Milkweed is another interesting one. Break the leaves and/or stem and apply the milky sap. Reportedly the itching drives you nuts for 15 minutes but then it disappears, as does the rash two days later.

Another is honeysuckle. Whip the leaves and a bit of water in a blender into a paste and apply to the rash. The recipe doesn’t specify which of the many varieties of honeysuckle. Similarly is fiddle head fern leaves boiled into a tea which is applied to the outbreak. Most ferns form fiddleheads in the spring so I don’t know which species may have the magic ju-ju.

And some final warnings. If you have sensitive skin some remedies can be worse than poison ivy itself. Also, allergy shots seem to cause spreading so consult your doctor.  Breathing smoke from burning poison ivy can infect you internally which could be fatal. If you get a serious case of poison ivy inside or out get to the doc for professional treatment.

Carpe diem.

Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications.

He can be reached at