Prevention & Recovery

4 things you should know about poison ivy

Author: Canadian Living

Prevention & Recovery

4 things you should know about poison ivy

This story was originally titled "Poison Ivy" in the July 2008 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

Itching to get outside for a walk in nature? Beware of poison ivy, a three-leafed vine or low shrub with greenish flowers and white berries that grows mainly in Ontario and Quebec. It appears harmless but can cause serious skin reactions. Before you head out for a walk in the woods, learn to identify poison ivy, and how to take care of a skin reaction if you get one. Here's what you need to know.

1. Each part of the plant – leaves, stems, fruits, flowers and root – contains a toxic resin called urushiol.
This oil is present in the plant throughout the year, but a skin reaction is most common in spring or early summer when the leaves are tender. Poison ivy's cousins – poison oak, which grows as high as six feet in the West, and poison sumac, which grows mainly in swampy woods or shrub swamps in the southeastern parts of Canada – also contain urushiol and can cause the same skin reaction.

2. About 85 per cent of Canadians will react to poison ivy.
The reaction, which can take up to a few days to appear, typically involves redness and itching that quickly develops into small blisters. Sometimes a secondary infection develops. "The reaction tends to appear in straight lines because of the way someone has brushed up against the plant," says Dr. Gillian de Gannes, a dermatologist and clinical instructor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. "The reaction can also appear at different times depending on what part of the body came in contact with the resin first, based on the different thickness of skin."

3. The best treatment is avoidance.
Steer clear of any three-leafed plants that have flowers and berries, advises Dr. Charles Lynde, a dermatologist in Toronto. Here are some extra tips when out in the woods.
• Wear a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, and closed-toe shoes.
• Don't let the family dog run in the woods; the oils from poison ivy can be transferred from his fur to your skin. Hose him down if he's touched the plant.
• Sit in open, grassy areas and the middle of the path to avoid brushing your ankles against the plant.
• Wash your hands, body and clothes carefully after being outdoors, even if you don't think you came into contact with the poisonous plant. Some say alkaline soap is better than a pH-neutral soap in breaking down the toxin.
• Use cold water instead of hot, which tends to open the pores and aid in absorption of the oil.
• If you come in contact with poison ivy, try not to touch any other body part because the poison spreads easily. Wash the affected part of your body within 10 minutes of exposure, using lots of cool water and soap to get rid of as much of the poisonous oil as possible.

4. If you get a rash, soak in a lukewarm bath and put baggies of ice on the affected area.

This strategy, says Lynde, will ease the constant itch. "Calamine lotion can also be used to dry the blisters," he adds. If you want a more effective rash reliever, get a prescription for a topical steroid from your doctor, but you’ll have to be quick; it's most effective if applied immediately.

Is bug protection also on your mind this summer? Find out how to tame mosquitos, avoid fly bites and protect your skin.

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Prevention & Recovery

4 things you should know about poison ivy