“Leaves of three, let them be.” Sound familiar? This quote refers to the dreaded poison oak and poison ivy, plants which line hiking trails and woods around the world. To protect themselves from being devoured, these hardy weeds have developed a very effective defense; their shiny leaves contain a reactive oil that causes a severe local rash. It is incredibly itchy and can often burn in order to deter second attempts from bugs and birds. However, us hapless humans can develop a rash from merely brushing against these leaves.
Hypersensitive people can have severe rashes covering much of their body, sometimes for weeks! Growing up, I often picked blueberries just along our fence, and more often than not, I’d develop that a classic shiny, wet, and super-itchy rash. My mom still gets really bad attacks and takes steroid pills to cool them off. Some very unlucky people get a rash around the eyes and mouth, and may need prescription medicines, injections or even hospitalization. That’s why the number one way to prevent this nuisance is to avoid touching them!
But to avoid these ubiquitous plants, you first need to know what they look like. Both poison oak and poison ivy have a clustering of three shiny leaves. They usually grow on the ground, but can also climb up other plants. Coming into contact with these plants is inevitable, so keep yourself well covered when trekking. It’s very easy to get the rash on your ankles and feet, so it helps to wear socks. The oil can cling to clothes for days, so wash outdoor clothes in hot water to dissolve the oils. It takes at least a few hours to days to develop the rash, so use soap and water on yourself to remove any oil before it absorbs into the skin. It can also stick to animal hair and easily spread to anyone petting your dog, so he may need a good soap and water bath, too.
If you’re unlucky enough to get the rash, there are many home remedies and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines you can try. My favorite is the pink stuff: calamine lotion. It’s extremely soothing and cooling, and every medicine cabinet at home should have it. The other must-have is a topical steroid cream, such as hydrocortisone 1% to reverse or control the body’s allergic reactions. Other medicines may include the anti-allergy medicines, especially diphendydramine (Benadryl) pills and syrups. These work great for a few hours and also help kids sleep better, as they are very sedating. The newer allergy medicines such as Clarityn are less sedating and may not be as effective. If you or your child is still miserable, or if the rash affects the eyes or throat, it’s definitely time to see the doctor.
photo by Flickr user: Darren Wilkins