Avoid the Itch This Summer
by Lisa DiFalco
Are you planning a camping trip or family outing this summer? A little knowledge goes a long way in keeping both yourself and your loved ones itch-free. Insects are not the only organisms that can make a person miserable. It is worth knowing how to identify and avoid some all-too-common plants found in backyards, parks and campsites throughout the United States. Nearly 85 percent of people have an allergic reaction to poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac.
Even if you are not a naturalist, it is important for every outdoor enthusiast to be able to identify and treat skin and other surfaces that may have come into contact with poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. Know more about poison ivy, oak and sumac and keep the itch away.
Contact dermatitis or an itchy, red rash is often the result of a brush with poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac. The oils of these plants can enter the skin quickly, causing an uncomfortable allergic reaction. Poison ivy, recognizable by its red stems and three shiny leaves attached to a vine, has become one of the most common causes of skin rashes among adults and children enjoying the outdoors.
Poison ivy can often be found along riverbanks, but it does not stop the vines from climbing trees along paths and trails. It is generally found throughout the United States. A healthcare provider can provide the most suitable treatment options based on tolerances to specific medications, preferences, medical history and the extent of an allergic reaction. Healthcare providers should also be contacted if a person has inhaled smoke from burning plants.
Poison oak looks similar to poison ivy. This plant also has three leaves, but rather than a vine, the plant grows as a shrub. It is more commonly seen on the West Coast. As with poison ivy, the poison oak plant oils left behind on surfaces and the affected skin can make the condition contagious. It is important to quickly treat the individual to reduce potential reactions and decrease the likelihood of further contact.
Poison sumac leaves look different than poison ivy or poison oak leaves. Leaves come in pairs and every stem has 7 to 13 leaves in this arrangement. Individuals around the Mississippi River can easily come in contact with this woody shrub.
Signs of Contact
You or a person you care about can easily come into contact with oils from one of these plants. Urushiol is the resin that can remain on and be transmitted to shoes, tools, pets, clothing and other surfaces. It can remain active for over a year. Remove plants in or around the backyard, but do not burn them. If the plants are burned, the smoke emitted can also cause a rash. Symptoms of contact with poison ivy, oak or sumac include:
- Red bumps;
- Large blisters;
- Red patchy rashes where the skin has come into contact with plant oils; and
- Extreme itchiness.
Reactions can vary. Individuals can experience mild to severe symptoms. A person may suffer from the rash and associated symptoms from anywhere from one to three weeks. Emergency medical treatment may be necessary when a person suffers a severe allergic reaction from the contact or may have had severe reactions before.
First Aid Treatment
There are a number of steps to take to address potential contact with poison ivy, oak or sumac. The first step is to wash the skin with soap and warm water. This should be performed three times. Ideally, this should be done within the first 30 minutes after contact. Transmission of plant oils occurs quickly. Additionally, it is important to:
- Scrub under fingernails using a brush;
- Wash clothes and shoes with hot water and soap to remove lingering oils;
- Bathe animals immediately to remove oils;
- Keep cool and apply cool compresses to the skin;
- Use calamine lotion, hydrocortisone cream or antihistamines to control itching and blistering; and
- Wash objects and tools with rubbing alcohol or a diluted bleach solution.
A healthcare provider should be called for treatment in cases of uncontrollable itching, when rashes are on or near the eyes, lips, face or genitals, or there are signs of an infection. A patient may be prescribed oral steroids or a steroid cream. Be aware that adults, children and animals can come into contact with poison ivy, oak or sumac, and treating affected areas and surfaces quickly can reduce the potential of a severe reaction.
Young children can learn to identify poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac. This can reduce the chances that they may brush up against or unknowingly touch these plants. If a plant is known to be common to an area, wear long pants and long sleeves to prevent inadvertent contact. Pets can come into contact with the plants and their oils too. Wash pet fur carefully. Clothes and shoes should be washed right after extending time outdoors. Individuals who develop a reaction to plant oils have been sensitized to the oils. A person can have no reaction the first time he or she touches poison ivy, oak or sumac. A reaction may develop in instances of future contact.
Enjoy Summer Outdoors
Poison ivy, oak or sumac should not keep families indoors. A little education and some planning can help individuals make the most of summer day trips or vacations. Know what to look for when it comes to the plants in a specified area, the signs of an allergic reaction and how to apply basic first aid. Reach out to a medical professional in the case of severe allergic reactions, inhalation of smoke from burning poison ivy and related plants or when first aid does not seem to ameliorate symptoms.