The Vile Vine
By Debbie Gilbert
JUNE 8, 1998: Its the scourge of the South: an aggressive vine that can take over entire forests and is tough to eradicate. No, were not talking about kudzu here, but poison ivy, a plant apparently put here by God to make us miserable.
But it doesnt have to ruin your summer. Once you know the facts about poison ivy, you shouldnt have to worry about contracting the rash. Here are some of the most common misconceptions about it:
Myth: Ive never had poison-ivy rash, so I must be immune.
Myth: Highly sensitive individuals can get poison ivy just by
standing near it.
Myth: You can only get poison ivy in the summer.
Myth: Scratching the rash will make it spread.
But avoiding this torture is simple: Just dont touch the plant. That means knowing what it looks like, and this can be tricky for the uninitiated, because poison ivy has variable forms. It can be a vine, a free-standing weedy plant, even a small tree. Its leaves can be glossy or dull, and their edges can be smooth or serrated.
If you arent sure about identification, the old adage Leaves of three, let it be is a good rule to follow. The leaves are arranged in a distinctive triangular pattern, with two leaves directly opposite each other and the third sticking out in front, perpendicular to the lower two. Dont worry about distinguishing this plant from poison oak; the latter is rare in the Memphis area, and usually what people call poison oak turns out to be poison ivy or a baby oak tree.
Poison ivy loves disturbed, marginal areas, such as the edge of a forest thats been partially cut, so its very common in the suburbs. Theres no good explanation for why poison ivy tends to take over certain places. For example, its rampant at Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park, on the Tennessee River, but almost nonexistent at Mousetail Landing State Park, also on the Tennessee but farther south. If you want to get away from Toxicodendron radicans altogether, youll have to travel to Alaska, Hawaii, or the deserts of California and Nevada, or climb above 4,000 feet.
But lets get real. Around here, you have to live with this stuff. And that means watching where youre going. In the woods, stay on trails preferably at least 2 feet wide. Dont reach out to steady yourself against a tree trunk until youve checked it for fuzzy vines.
If your skin encounters poison ivy despite your efforts, youve got a grace period of about 15 minutes in which to wash it off, using water, alcohol, or a product called Tecnu (which can also be used to clean urushiol off clothing, shoes, equipment, even pets).
You also now have the option of preventing poison-ivy rash. Last year the FDA approved IvyBlock, a lotion that forms a protective film over your skin, making it almost impervious to urushiol.
IvyBlock is available without a prescription at any pharmacy. It can be a godsend, but there are drawbacks. First of all, its pricey: about $9 for a 4-ounce bottle. It has to be reapplied every four hours, so you could go through a bottle pretty quickly. And if youre in the typical summer-outdoors situation where you also need sunscreen and insect repellent, thats three layers of crud youve got to slather onto your skin.
When precautions fail and a raging rash develops, time-tested remedies are still the gold standard. Calamine lotion eases itching and helps dry up weeping blisters. Cool baths with a half-cup of baking soda or Aveeno oatmeal added to the tub can be soothing, especially if the rash covers large areas of the body. Cool compresses with diluted Burows solution (ask your pharmacist) may be helpful. Nonprescription steroid creams such as Cortaid are often effective, but should be used only for a few days at a time.
If the rash is widespread, if there is swelling, or if the eyes are affected, you should see a doctor. You will probably be prescribed both a corticosteroid lotion (more powerful than what you can buy over the counter) and a steroid pill such as prednisone to reduce inflammation.
But it should never come to that. People who are vigilant and use common sense hardly ever get a case of poison ivy that bad.
The best advice is to stay out of the woods, right? Well, no the biggest risk is to gardeners. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, reactions to poison ivy and oak are the leading reason for workers-compensation payments to people who work outdoors. And weekend gardeners can get into trouble in their own backyards. Dont just yank out the offending vines; spray them first with an herbicide such as Roundup, ideally in the growing months of June and July. Wait a week, until the plant is dead down to the roots, then put on gloves and bag the vines for disposal (dont burn them!). If the poison ivy is surrounded by desirable plants and you dont want to use weedkiller, you may have to wait until fall and cautiously pull the ivy up by its roots.
In any case, it will soon be back. Poison ivy loves the South. Unlike the invasive kudzu, poison ivy is a native species. Its in its element here, and theres nothing you can do except learn to co-exist with the enemy.
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