If you've ever seen the movie, "Little Shop of Horrors," you might draw a parallel to the oversized, flesh-eating plant known as Audrey II with the more prosaic leaf known as poison ivy. Unlike Audrey II, poison ivy is not carnivorous; but like it, toxicodendron radicans, can pose serious risk to those unlucky enough to be allergic to it.
To make matters worse, according to a report in Weed Science, poison ivy has grown more aggressive since the 1950s, with measurably increased leaf size and oil content. This is bad news if you are one of the more than 350,000 people who are stricken by poison ivy annually.
But to Dr. Jeffrey Sturza, a Tarrytown-based dermatologist and chief of the department of dermatology at Phelps Memorial Hospital Center, poison ivy complaints are as perennial as the plant itself. "It is one of the more common complaints dermatologists hear during the spring and summer months when people are outside gardening, weeding or recreating with more of their skin exposed."
Poison ivy grows throughout much of North America, and is extremely common in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and southeastern U.S. It's typically found in wooded areas as well as exposed rocky areas and open fields, and is recognizable by its group of three leaflets on small stems coming off larger main stems. For decades parents have taught their children the singsong phrase, "Leaves of three, let it be," as a way of learning to spot this prettily toxic plant. It also sports inconspicuous greenish flowers with five petals, and berry-like fruits that are hard and whitish.
According to Dr. Sturza, among the common misconceptions about poison ivy is that "one can spread it to other parts of their body or to others via contact." He says emphatically, "It is not true." He adds, "One can spread the oil from the plant to other parts of one's body or to others, causing a more widespread reaction. But once you have showered and washed with soap, you are no longer contagious." He says, however, that a dog, while not susceptible to the oil, can carry the oil on its fur for quite some time and continue transmitting it to human recipients.
If you think you've contacted poison ivy, washing the area with soap and water as soon as possible is a good place to start. Some studies indicate the oils must be on your skin for at least 15 minutes before you react.
As to treatments, Dr. Sturza recommends placing cold, wet compresses onto the affected areas. He also suggests applying a topical steroid, such as hydrocortisone cream. He says if the symptoms are widespread or severe, systemic steroids, such as prednisone, can be prescribed by a physician.
Avoiding contact with the plant is, of course, the best prevention. When you spot poison ivy, show it to kids and instruct them to stay away from it. If you have a large amount growing in your yard, consult with a professional landscaper for removal. Unless you are a professional, do not "weed whack," as it sprays the poison ivy -- and hence the oil -- right at you.
Have you encountered poison ivy? Do you have a fail-safe cure -- or, at least something to relieve its symptoms? Please let me know here, or email me, at firstname.lastname@example.org.