Watch out for this plant this summer. Pictured above is an example of poison ivy, also known as Toxicodendron radicans. This is a particularly lush and thriving example, too. Just look how green it is! See those sets of three leaves? That's what you should watch out for.
Repeat after me-- "Leaves of three, let them be." or "Leaves of three, stay away from me!"
That's a good start, anway. But poison ivy can vary in appearance---sometimes it grows as a dense shrub, sometimes it can be a climbing or trailing vine.
You can encounter poison ivy growing almost anywhere in Illinois. It can be found in forest preserves, bike trails, vacant lots, construction sites, roadsides, campgrounds, even backyards.
Poison ivy prefers warm and wet conditions where it flourishes in the summer. It can twine around trees or fences, becoming an impenetrable mass of foliage. In the fall, look for red leaves and white or cream-colored berries.
Poison ivy does not discriminate. Men, women, children --almost everyone is sensitive to the oil in poison ivy. Some individuals are more sensitive than others. You may say, "Oh, it never bothered me when I was a kid." Congratulations! Don't think you are immune.
Poison ivy is a member of the genus Toxicodendron, which means poison tree. This genus also includes poison oak and poison sumac. You can read more about them here.
All these plants contain an oil, urushiol. Urushiol is found it all parts of the plant (leaves, stems, even berries) When this oil gets on the skin, an allergic reaction occurs in most people--an itchy red rash with bumps or blisters. The medical term for this is contact dermatitis. There are other words for it, but I will not use them here!
Urushiol can be spread by touching or brushing against a leaf, touching clothing or an animal that has come in contact with the oil, even inhaling the smoke if the plant is burned.
But you don't have to wear a hazmat suit if you're hiking in the woods. Wear sensible clothing and shoes, and pay attention. For extra protection, there are barrier creams available, which can be applied like sunscreen.
If you are working outdoors, the CDC recommends these sensible precautions--
- wear long sleeves, long pants, boots and gloves.
- wash exposed clothing separately in hot water with detergent.
- Barrier skin creams, such as a lotion containing bentoquatum, may offer some protection before contact.
- Barrier creams should be washed off and reapplied twice a day.
- After use, clean tools with rubbing alcohol (isopropanol or isopropyl alcohol) or soap and lots of water. Urushiol can remain active on the surface of objects for up to 5 years.
- Wear disposable gloves during this process.
- Do not burn plants that may be poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac.
- Inhaling smoke from burning plants can cause severe allergic respiratory problems.
DO NOT BURN POISON IVY!
If you do come in contact with poison ivy--As soon as possible, wash all affected areas with rubbing alcohol, then soap and water. Wash all clothing separately in detergent. Wash anything that may have come in contact with the plants.
Yes, that means pets, too. Although dogs and cats don't seem to be bothered by it, you can pick up the oil just by touching their fur. Use pet shampoo and wear rubber gloves when giving them a bath.
If you do get a rash, there are over-the-counter remedies available for milder cases. Antihistamines and calamine lotion can help stop the itch and the urge to scratch. Oatmeal soaks, baking soda and yogurt can also be helpful.
For more severe cases, please seek medical attention. There are prescription drugs that can help minimize the duration and spread of the rash.
What else can you do? Stay positive, keep applying calamine lotion, and play this classic song by the Coasters.
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