Hot spring and summer weather means that a lot of people spend more time playing and running around outside. It also means the re-growth of poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac, which can cause a lot of problems. As many as 50% of people who come into contact with these poisonous plants will have an allergic reaction to them. Knowing what they look like and avoiding contact with them is the first step in avoiding an itchy, painful rash, or worse, a severe reaction requiring medication, writes Westchester Health Pediatrics pediatrician Dr. Peter Richel in a timely blog.
Know what poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac look like so you can avoid them
Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac grow low in the spring but travel up trees and fences in the summer and fall. As well as affecting humans by way of direct contact, these plants can also spread their irritation if they are part of leaf burning in the fall.
Generally in the northeast, poison ivy is the primary plant that causes a skin reaction. The old adage, “leaves of three, let them be” — describing three leaflets from one stem, sometimes reddish — is generally accurate. (A Google search on the Internet will provide you with many pictures of all three plants.)
The allergic substance on these plants is called urushiol. Avoiding contact with it is the best prevention; wearing long pants, shirt sleeves and gloves when outside or gardening is encouraged.
Urushiol adheres to skin, clothing and pet hair. If exposure occurs, it is best to wash your skin as soon as possible. Remove all clothing and wash it also.
Here’s what to do if you’ve been exposed to poisonous plants
If exposed, it is important to keep the skin clean and not to break the skin while scratching (which can cause a bacterial skin infection). There are a variety of products (Tecnu, Zanfel, Goop Hand Cleaner and any surfactant-based dishwashing product) that can help in the removal of the offending substance.
After exposure, symptoms usually occur within the first 4 days and appear as a pink or reddened area with small fluid-filled bumps, typically in a linear pattern. (It is a common misconception that the fluid within these lesions spread the rash; this is incorrect.) The skin reaction will continue to spread and increase from 1-2 weeks, regardless of most treatments.
There are many OTC products which help relieve the symptoms of poisonous plant exposure: ITCH-X, calamine lotion and topical astringents are some effective options for minor cases. The mainstay of treatment is topical corticosteriods: 1% creams can be purchased over the counter but stronger ones need a physician’s prescription.
Gentle interventions such as cool compresses and oatmeal baths may provide some relief, and oral antihistamines may provide relief with sleep. In severe cases, an oral steroid will be prescribed.
To read Dr. Richel’s blog in full, click here.