By Russ and Tiña De Maris
“Happiness,” wrote the poet Ogden Nash, “is having a scratch for every itch.” We daresay Nash never ran into a patch of poison ivy. He’d have been so busy with the scratches he’d never have time to lift his pen. Poison ivy rash, and the resulting itch, can literally last for weeks. What a way to spoil an RV trip! How can you deal with poison ivy and its creepy cohorts, poison oak and poison sumac?
Avoid close encounters of the unwanted kind
How likely are you to have a close encounter of the unwanted kind? A quick look at the distribution map of this terrible trio could almost be terrifying. While poison sumac is limited to very wet areas, largely on the East Coast and parts of the Southeast, poison ivy hangs out in virtually every one of the Lower 48 states. Although it is a bit limited on the ocean-side of the Western coastal states, poison oak is more than happy to heavily populate those areas!
The best way to deal with poison ivy and kin is simply not to touch them. An old rhyme learned as children ran, “Leaves of three? Let them be!” A scientifically based statement, plants bearing three leaves are immediately suspect, as poison oak and poison ivy are three-leaved plants. Poison sumac, alas, didn’t read the instruction set. Its leaves are decidedly different, with 7 to 13 leaflets arranged in pairs along a stem, with a single leaflet at the end of the stem. It’s a bit stylish too, with leaves that are bright orange in spring, changing to dark green in summer, and then to red-orange in fall. You’ll find the website poison-ivy.org a great place to “deep dive” for more information on all itch-inducing plants.
Results of contact
Regardless of the actual plant, if you run into any of these three irritating characters, the result is often the same. Contact with the resin of the leaves, an oily substance called urushiol, brings on a nasty reaction. It’s a rash and itch that can drive you mad. Depending on your own body reaction and the amount of the urushiol you contact, the itch can be mild to maddening. Some folks are blessed with no reaction at all, but if you carry home the resin to others, they may become “collateral damage.”
If you’re taking a walk and step in some sort of unknown plant, it’s best to treat yourself as if you’ve had contact with one of the members of the unholy plant trinity. Wash up well with soap and water. Wash your clothes and shoes, too. And if Rover may have muddled his way into a poison plant, he, too, will need the dreaded bath. Dealing with poison ivy isn’t pretty, or easy.
Go offensive with skin barriers
Some folks who frequent areas where poisonous contact plants are common go on the offensive. Before setting out in the brush, they coat themselves with a barrier substance that helps prevent the creepy plants from getting through. One product that seems to receive fairly high marks for shutting down poison ivy before it gets started is IvyX Pre-Contact Skin Barrier Gel. Its maker says you simply apply the stuff to your skin and you can immediately head out on your adventures. You can find it on Amazon.
What if you come in contact with these durned dermal delinquents? Again, washing to get rid of as much of the oil as possible is the starting point. There are over-the-counter potions to help you deal with poison ivy (and similar plant irritants) reactions. One such product is the humble calamine lotion. You can aim higher on the potency list to deal with poison ivy reactions with corticosteroid skin creams. And, adds the Mayo Clinic, Benadryl (diphenhydramine) can also help one to cope with the irritating itching.
Beware, a simple itch may not be the end of it. If your reaction includes liquid-filled blisters, swelling, difficulty in breathing, or fever, don’t self-medicate. Get thee to a physician!
Sumac (and others) summary
Dealing with poison ivy or others in the itch-inducing family starts with avoiding contact. That means keeping a sharp eye open for suspect plants. Using a barrier ointment can reduce the problem if you do bumble into these “brambles.” And if you have an incident, take the appropriate action to cope with the reactions. Frankly, for our travels, the only itch we want is the “hitch itch,” wherein our sense of adventure and delight in discovery moves our feet on down the road.