6 Ways to avoid the wrath of poisonous plants

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6 Ways to avoid the wrath of poisonous plants

The sunny, warm, and long days of spring and summer are finally here.  That means more time spent outdoors gardening, taking hikes, playing in the yard and being out in nature.  It also means the more time you spend outside enjoying all it has to offer, the greater chance you’ll come into contact with a poisonous plant.  Anyone who has had the unfortunate experience of the wrath of a poisonous plant – unsightly bubbly rash and extreme itchiness – knows they will do just about anything to prevent it from happening again.

The three most common poisonous plants affecting most people each year are poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac.  These three commonly found plants have an oil called urushiol (you-roo-shee-all) which has the potential to cause an allergic contact dermatitis at the site of exposure.  According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 85% of people will develop a rash when they get urushiol on their skin.  The reaction can range from a minor rash and itch to a more severe reaction with blistering and swelling. 

If you’ve never had the itchy, oozing, bubbly rash of poison ivy, oak or sumac, consider yourself very lucky.  This common rash many people will get during the spring, summer or fall is one of the most annoying and possibly scar inducing rashes a person can get. 

It all starts with the oil called urushiol found in these plants causing a blistering rash to occur within 12 to 72 hours after contact with the oil. This is known as allergic contact dermatitis due to the oil acting as an irritant to the skin. Fortunately, the rash is not contagious and usually goes away within a few weeks.  However, swelling can be a sign of a severe reaction, particularly if it involves swelling of the face or eyes.  Difficulty in breathing or swallowing warrants an immediate trip to the emergency room.  Contact your doctor’s office if the rash appears on your face (especially your eyes) or the genitalia, if it covers a large area of your body, and if you are unable to control your symptoms at home. 

Preventing contact with these poisonous plants is the solution.  Taking necessary precautions is a big step in reducing the misery of an aggressive poison ivy, oak or sumac rash.

1.      Avoid contact with the plants

The saying “leaves of three, let them be,” is sage advice.  In order to avoid contact you must know what they look like and be looking for them whenever you are outdoors.  When hiking, stay on cleared trails or pathways, avoiding walking into wooded areas or low-lying brush.  If gardening or pulling weeds, be mindful of where your legs and hands are and what you are touching.  If pitching a tent for camping, do so in an area cleared free of these plants.

2.      Cover-up when outdoors

Spending time outdoors means you may be in an area of where poison ivy, oak, or sumac like to spend time also.  If you are going into a wooded area, gardening or being near fence posts, trees or other fixtures ivy likes to climb on, protect your skin by wearing socks, boots, pants, long sleeves, and vinyl gloves.

3.     Kill the plants

Inspect your yard for these ‘leaves of three’ plants.  If spotted, apply an herbicide to kill them.  It is recommended not to burn these plants as the usushiol can be carried by the smoke which you breathe in and could cause a serious systemic reaction throughout the body. 

4.     Wash hands after being outdoors or petting animals

Washing hands and arms using soap and cool water within 30 minutes after exposure can help wash away most of the oil preventing the harmful resin form reacting with your skin.  If you feel you may have been exposed on other areas of your body, take a shower – this can go a long way in preventing or at least reduce the severity of a rash. 

Animals like dogs or cats may have walked through an area where the poisonous leaves brushed against their fur containing the oil.  If you pet them, the oil gets onto you.  Always wash your hands thoroughly after playing with your pets.

5.     Clean all contaminated objects

Promptly wash your clothing that comes into contact with poison ivy, oak or sumac in a washing machine.  Anything else that has been contaminated – jewelry, garden tools, shoes, shoelaces – need to be washed as soon as possible.

6.     Use a barrier cream

A good way to protect yourself is to use a cream creating a barrier between your skin and the oily resin.  Look for over-the-counter products that will form a protective blockade against these poisonous plants.