Poisonous Itchy Plants: Avoid At All Cost!

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poison ivy

Poisonous Itchy Plants: Avoid At All Cost!

Hot summer weather means playing and running around outside. It also means the re-growth of poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac, which can cause lots of people lots of problems!

Peter Richel, MD, Westchester Health Pediatrics

Peter Richel, MD

Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac: Know what they look like so you can avoid them

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.

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.

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, ZanfelGoop 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.

After about 2 weeks, all lesions should dry up and go away.

If your family likes to go apple picking in the fall, remember: Be on the lookout for poison ivy that lurks around and under apple trees. You don’t want the whole itchy process to occur all over again!

By Peter Richel, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician with Westchester Health Pediatrics.

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About the Author: ML Ball