Preventing the itch of poison ivy

When it comes to protecting your skin from poison ivy, a little knowledge goes a long way. The ability to identify the plant is a good place to start.

Poison ivy grows throughout Massachusetts. It appears as a three-leaved plant with clusters of small, yellow-green flowers in spring and gray to white berries in early fall. Poison ivy can take many forms. It can grow as a low, spreading shrub, an upright shrub, or a vine with aerial roots. The leaves may be notched or smooth and the leaf surfaces may be dull or shiny.

Poison ivy can be found in forests, fields, wetlands, and along streams and roadsides. Urban and suburban environments like backyards and parks can harbor this wily botanical demon, and even dead and dormant plants may contain urushiol (the allergy causing oil found in all parts of the plant), so be wary of them, too.

One need only be exposed to a tiny amount of urushiol to cause an itchy, blistering rash. According to the Centers for Disease Control, contact with as little as 50 micrograms of urushiol (less than one grain of table salt) will cause an allergic reaction in 80 – 90 percent of adults.

If you come in contact with poison ivy, take the following steps:

  • Immediately rinse your skin with lukewarm, soapy water to remove some of the oil;
  • Wash your clothing and anything that may have the oil on its surface, including pet fur, gardening tools, golf clubs, etc.;
  • Don’t scratch the rash, as scratching can cause an infection;
  • Don’t open or otherwise disturb the blisters.
  • See the July 2014 issue of the SSDP newsletter for treatment advice.

To protect yourself from poison ivy, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends using an ivy block barrier. This product contains bentoquatam, a substance that forms a barrier to prevent the skin from absorbing urushiol. Apply the block before going outdoors.

Even when you use an ivy block barrier, be sure to wear long pants, long sleeves, boots and gloves when heading into areas where poison ivy may occur.