Poison Ivy

It is now spring and people will be spending more time participating in outdoor activities where they may come in contact with poison ivy. Poison ivy can be found in gardens, yards, along fences, & wooded areas. It can grow in about any location in the Midwest but prefers forest edges and recently disturbed fields.
This plant is widely distributed by many species of birds and mammals that eat the plant's berries. They include warblers, woodpeckers, bluebirds, vireos, rabbits, & deer, just to name a few. If you live in an urban area that you think is free of poison ivy that may not be true. For a bird perching on your deck, tree, or fence, or a rabbit passing through your yard, may deposit a poison ivy seed and a small plant will soon begin to grow.

Poison ivy with berries
Poison ivy with berries

Between 50 and 70 percent of people, experience physical reactions to contact with the poison ivy plant. Poison ivy is a member of the Cashew Family: poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. In Missouri poison oak is rare, and poison sumac has never been recorded in the state according information provided by the Missouri Department of Conservation. The best way to distinguish poison ivy from other plants is to look at its leaves and tendrils. There is an old saying "Leaves of three, leave it be" which is wise to follow. Poison ivy is a plant with a compound leaf and three leaflets. It is green all summer and is one of the first plants to turn color in the fall from bright oranges to reds. All parts of the plant in all seasons can cause an allergic reaction and rash, so it is important to be able to identify the plant with no leaves. Its vines are easy to spot in the winter as it clings tightly to a host plant with dark brown, hair-like tendrils.

Poison ivy produces an oleoresin called urushiol. This is the clear sticky oil which contains a chemical transmitter and resin that binds to the surface of your skin cells. In most people this oil will trigger an immunologic response that leads to a rash or "Rhus" dermatitis. Urushiol is very potent. Scientists estimate that the amount of urushiol need to infect 500 people would fit onto the head of a pin. It is a stable, long lasting and can remain active on a dead plant for up to 5 years.
Urushiol is found in every part of the poison ivy plant throughout the entire year. This would even include the roots & berries of the plant.

Poison Ivy
Poison ivy attached to its host with hair like tendrils

Urushiol becomes an irritant when it is absorbed into the skin and metabolizes with the bodies skin proteins. Your body's immune system reacts and causes itching, inflammation and blistering. When your body has destroyed these proteins the symptoms will disappear. Some people are so sensitive to the plant that they suffer symptoms after petting a dog that has been in poison ivy, inhaling smoke from burning it, or handling the clothes of someone who has walked through it. Contrary to what we have been told about catching it from touching someone with a poison ivy rash, it is an "Old Wives Tale". The liquid inside your blisters is not urushiol, but fluids your body has produced. Breaking the blisters is not recommended, as these blisters help prevent infection and help in the healing process. Let these blisters break and heal on their own.

When exposed to the plant, the sooner you wash the exposed area the less likely you will suffer a serious rash or blistering. Wash with cool running water using a soap that DOES NOT contain lanolin or other moisturizing oils, as using this type of soap will spread the urushiol to other parts of your body. Using old time lye soap, Ivory, or liquid dishwashing soap, like Dawn, are all good soaps for removing poison ivy oils.

Poison Ivy Blister

Poison Ivy Rashes
Poison ivy rashes

Remember to avoid touching anything that has come in contact with poison ivy. Unwashed clothing can contain the active oils for as long as two years. If you used gloves to pull out poison ivy, don't touch exposed areas of your skin, and don't touch your face and eyes. Any garden tools such as saws, pruning tools, and shovels that were used in the removal of poison ivy should be cleaned before they are used again.

If you suffer from extreme itching or you have a break out around your eyes, throat, genitals or if you suspect an infection, please seek medical attention. There are prescribed medications that only your doctor can provide for you that will help during the healing process.