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Lisa A. Cook, PA-C
Leaves Of Three, Let It Be
Loudoun Pediatric Associates

Leaves Of Three, Let It Be

Most of us look forward to spending time outdoors enjoying the warm weather and nature's beauty. However, more time outdoors also has its risks. Seven out of ten people are allergic to poison ivy, making this the world's most common allergy.

Poison ivy contains an oil called urushiol, which causes an allergic contact dermatitis when it touches your skin. Indirect contact, such as clothing, shoes, pet fur, sporting gear, gardening tools, or other objects, can also cause the rash. Urushiol doesn't cause a rash on everyone who gets it on their skin. If you think you're immune because you have never developed a rash before, keep in mind it can sometimes take multiple exposures or several years before you finally begin to develop an allergic response to urushiol.

The first symptom is severe itching of the skin. Later, a red inflammation and blistering of the skin occur often in a linear pattern where the plant brushed against your skin. In severe cases, oozing sores develop. The rash can appear anywhere from 8 hours to 48 hours after exposure and may worsen or progress over the next several days. The rash can also last from 10 days up to 6 weeks.

Initial treatment consists of washing the area with water or rubbing alcohol immediately after contact with the plants. Don't forget to put gloves on and wipe everything you had with you with rubbing alcohol or water. To relieve symptoms, use wet compresses, oatmeal baths, calamine lotion, baking soda soaks or oral antihistamines, like Benadryl. Moderate or severe cases may require prescription oral steroids, topical steroids or steroid injections.

Remember, poison ivy is not contagious. Rubbing the rash will not spread it to other parts of your body or to another person. You spread the rash only if urushiol oil has been left on your hands.

If you have a history of severe reactions or the rash is on your eyes, nose, mouth, throat or genitals, be sure to seek medical attention right away.

To prevent poison ivy, it is important to be able to identify and avoid the plant. The following characteristics are sufficient to identify poison ivy in most situations clusters of three leaflets with the middle leaflet having a longer stalk than the other two; alternate leaf arrangement; and lack of thorns. Leaves are red in spring, and they change to shiny green in summer.

In autumn, leaves turn yellow, red or orange. Small greenish flowers grow in bunches closer to where each leaf joins. Later in the season, clusters of berry-like drupes form and are whitish with a waxy look.

If it cannot be avoided, wear long pants, long sleeves, boots and consider applying a barrier cream such as Ivy Block. Keep in mind that urushiol stays active on any surface, including dead plants, for up to five years. And, remember, never burn the plant as that can trigger a deadly reaction to anyone who is exposed to the smoke.

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