July 26, 2001
by Chris Feeney
After scratching away all weekend and hearing 101 homemade cures for poison ivy I decided this week's Outdoor Corner was going to offer a little medical advice for one of nature's number one villains as far as most hunters and fishermen are concerned.
I decided on this topic after we had a lengthy discussion at work regarding the topic. There was a little confusion on several aspects of the problem. The biggest dilemma was whether or not the disease was contagious. This is a sticky subject as the answer is yes and no. Contrary to popular belief, poison ivy does not spread from contact with the oozing sores or the discharge from the wounds.
However poison ivy does readily spread itself if the plant resin that causes the disease is not washed off with warm water and soap. Poison ivy, oak and sumac all emit the poisonous, oily irritant urushiol on the plant's stem, roots, branches, and leaves. This resin then chemically bonds with proteins as quick as 20 minutes after exposure to the plants. The key here is that exposure comes not only from contact with the plant but can come later from contact with tools, clothes or even pets that have contacted the poison plants and transferred the resin to you. It can even be contacted from long-dead plants such as in firewood piles. Scientists state that the plant oil does not evaporate and thus can linger on infected clothes or other materials for as long as a year.
"Dr. Feeney" reports that these poison plants affect as many as three out of every four people and 99-percent of silly carp fisherman that wade through the jungle in shorts and a tank top. The reaction time varies from a few hours to up to four or five days before the first rash becomes visible.
The problem starts with itchiness and swelling, followed by a reddish inflammation of tiny pimples. Blisters then form before bursting and oozing. This fluid then hardens to a yellowish crust. This fluid is produced by your body and does not contain any of the poison oils, thus it can not spread the disease. Left untreated, the poison can last three to five weeks.
So the safest bet to avoid all these problems is to wash your exposed body parts as soon as you get home from an outdoor adventure during which you may have contacted the plants. Shoes and shoestrings are the most common culprit of continued contamination since they are the most seldom washed item of clothing that has the greatest contact with the plants.
Another interesting subject is immunity. Sure some people are not effected by poison ivy. However, others like myself, can go through life without suffering from the problem before ultimately developing reactions to the resin. According to doctors, reactions that develop later in life often are more severe. So don't brag like I did, telling all my scratching friends that I don't get poison ivy, that I could roll around in a pile of the stuff and come up unaffected, because pay backs are what visits to the doctor are made of.
There are plenty of over the counter remedies and other soothing solutions but the best bet is too buck up and head to the doctor for a shot or a prescription of the stronger medicines to get rid of the itch as soon as possible. After a couple restless nights I decided that was the route to go.