Avoiding Poison Ivy and Oak
At some point in most people’s lives, a person will run into some poison ivy or oak. The legends are true – this is a painful, uncomfortable experience. Let’s learn a bit more about these pesky plants and then talk about avoiding poison ivy and oak.
Why Do Poison Ivy and Oak Make Us Itch?
Poison ivy and oak may seem harmless, but they produce a toxic oil called urushiol. This highly concentrated oil can irritate your skin, even in extremely small doses. Just a bit can cause blisters, swelling and an extremely itchy rash. To make matters worse, these uncomfortable symptoms can last for up to three weeks.
In fact, you can come into contact with urushiol without even touching one of these plants. The oil is so effective that it can easily bind to pet hair, pool toys or even garden tools. Urushoil will stay potent for quite a long time too. So extra precaution is needed.
If you happen to be very lucky, urushoil may not have an effect on your body. Dermatologists estimate that about 15% of the population has no allergic reaction to this chemical found in these plants. For the rest of us, the best we can hope for is avoiding poison ivy and oak.
Identifying and Avoiding Poison Ivy and Oak
Okay, so we understand why poison ivy and oak make us itch, but what now? The next step is learning to identify these plants. The fact is, both poison ivy and oak can survive almost anywhere. Most typically, they are found in the woods or by gardens and bushes.
In this next section, let’s look at how to identify both types of poisonous plant, as well as avoiding poison ivy and oak:
The old adage “leaves of three, let it be” is a good way to remember how to dodge patches of poison ivy. You see, poison ivy has shiny, bright-green leaves that tend to occur in groups of three. Typically, one leaf sits at the end of the stem while the other two leaves sit opposite each other on the stem.
Beyond the rhyming leaves, the rest of the plant has some other identifiable attributes as well. The vine that the leaves grow from is woody. The stem of the plant may appear hairy. This leads to another popular rhyming warning: "hairy rope, don't be a dope."
Finally, depending on the time of year, poison ivy may feature small clusters of small, yellowish-green flowers or hard, greenish-white berries.
Our next offender is poison oak. Believe it or not, it also has leaves of three. However, poison oak is a bit sneakier than ivy. In this case, the leaves tend to closely resemble regular oak leaves. Poison oak usually grows in dry areas and features flowers and berries that are white to yellow-green in color. There’s a saying for poison oak, too: “berries white, poisonous sight.”
Dress for Safety
If knowing is half the battle, the other half is simply staying safe. Since you now know how to recognize these plants, let’s talk about avoiding poison ivy and oak.
The first step is dressing for the occasion. If you will be hiking, gardening or otherwise wandering into areas where these plants may live, it pays to cover as much skin as possible. Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts. Additionally, don’t forget high socks and proper footwear.
If you’ll be gardening or working outdoors, consider wearing work gloves as well. Again, you want as little skin as possible to be exposed. Dressing for safety helps with poison plants, but also for avoiding ticks and other bugs.
Finally, if you have come into contact with either of these plants, there is still hope. We’ve written about the value of washing your hands in the past. That’s true in this situation as well.
If you realize that you came into contact with urushiol, wash quickly and vigorously. It typically takes about 10-30 minutes for the oil to actually bind to your skin. In this case, speed is your friend. Clean the affected area with rubbing alcohol and then wash it with cool water. Additionally, after the initial wash, take a hot shower using plenty of soap.
You can learn more about poisonous plants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.