Editorial: Vengeance of the vine

Photo By Michigan State University: Poison Ivy

Melissa Martin

Column By Melissa Martin

My nemesis returned again this summer. “Go away!” I shouted. But, this enemy is just about as powerful as Kryptonite to me.

During childhood, its tenacious tentacles would tag me on hikes through the woods or while picking wild berries. Or in my rural backyard while pulling weeds. 

Oatmeal baths, rubbing alcohol, bleach diluted with water, vinegar. These concoctions would only soothe the beast for a brief time. “I’ll be back,” it snickered. Home remedies didn’t work. Back in the day, calamine lotion was the go-to, but it didn’t work for me. 

And so for myriad years, I avoided its hideout. “No! I won’t go there, too dangerous.” 

And then my bravery bubbled up (or my seeping stupidity). Using double plastic bags over my hands, I challenged it to a duel. Losing, I isolated for 3 weeks without venturing outside due to the wounds. “You win,” I complained. “I’m no match for your evil power.” 

Its sting left an itchy red rash on my skin — hives and blisters. Oh! The agony of the itchiness, swelling, and bursting blisters. This green monster robs you of rest, steals your sleep, and makes you as grouchy as a grizzly bear. 

And so I used caution to fight against it. With gloved hands, long sleeves, boots, and a hat, I pulled it. But to no avail — it still bit me. 

And so I used chemicals instead of pulling them up by the roots. I sprayed and sprayed and sprayed. A well-known saying is, “Leaves of three, let them be.” But it’s a sneaky creature for those of us with a severe allergic reaction.

Photo By National Park Service: Poison Oak

Many people get a rash from poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. This rash is caused by oil found in the plants called urushiol (you-ROO-shee-all). The oil is a cunning culprit. 

About 60 percent to 80 percent of all people get a reaction to urushiol, according to Kids Health website. 

“Poison ivy and other poison plant rashes can’t be spread from person to person. But it is possible to pick up the rash from plant oil that may have stuck to clothing, pets, garden tools, and other items that have come in contact with these plants. The plant oil lingers (sometimes for years) on virtually any surface until it’s washed off with water or rubbing alcohol,” according to the FDA. www.fda.gov.

Magic potions only brought temporary relief—then I went to the emergency room and was prescribed corticosteroid pills. That’s how I spelled relief. Respect for poison ivy has replaced my fear. 

The best way to treat poison ivy is to avoid touching it in the first place. Oh, that advice will surely work. Duh! Summer is the time for gardening, camping, hiking, mountain vacations, nature walks, fishing, and picnics in the woods. Prevention is the best option, but unexpected things happen in the great outdoors. Be extra careful when you use the bathroom in wooded areas. 

Teach poison ivy safety to kids. Show identifying pictures and point out live plants.

Teach them how to identify poison ivy, oak, and sumac, so they can steer clear. Wash skin and scrub under fingernails right away with soap and water when encountered. Bathe exploring dogs to wash off any urushiol oil. Wash exposed clothes, gloves, and shoes. 

Mild cases can try over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams and oral antihistamines per Nationwide Children’s Hospital website. “If you have a widespread rash, face or genital involvement, or signs of infected skin, it’s time to see your doctor. In these cases, prescription steroids or antibiotics might be necessary.” Certain over-the-counter creams that contain the chemical bentoguatam can prevent the rash by providing a barrier to the surface of skin applied before any exposure. www.nationwidechildrens.org.

Enjoy your summer activities in the woods, parks, and campgrounds! And avoid the vine with a vengeance when you can.

Melissa Martin, Ph.D., is an author, columnist, educator, and therapist.  She lives in Ohio.