Avoid the Rash: What You Need to Know About Poison Ivy Sensitivity

What is poison ivy?

Poison Ivy (Urtica dioica) is a plant native to North America. It grows from Canada southward into Mexico and South America. Its leaves are usually dark green or brownish red with white spots, but sometimes they have yellow spots. They may grow up to 3 feet tall and 1 foot wide. Some species are evergreen while others are deciduous. Poison ivy is not poisonous, however it contains at least three chemicals which cause skin irritation and other effects. These chemicals are urushiol, atropine alkaloid and thujone.

The chemical composition of poison ivy varies depending on where it is found. For example, some plants contain only one chemical while others contain several. Urtica dioica contains both urushiol and atropine alkaloids along with thujone.

Atropine alkaloid is a derivative of atropine which was used as an antidiarrheal agent. Thujone is a highly toxic substance which causes vomiting, diarrhea, and heart failure.

How does poison ivy affect me?

Itchy rashes are common symptoms of poisoning caused by these three chemicals. Other symptoms include nausea, dizziness, headache and muscle pain. If you experience any of these symptoms then seek medical attention immediately! If you experience a sore throat or difficulty in swallowing, then you may have swallowed some of the poison. If you experience numbness in your mouth or around your eyes, then go see a doctor immediately as you may also need an antidote.

Which part of the plant contains these toxins?

The leaves, stems, roots, flowers, and seeds all contain urushiol and other toxins. The amount of urushiol in the leaves is highest during the fall and winter growing seasons.

How do I know if I have been exposed to poison ivy, oak or sumac?

You will experience an itchy, red rash with blisters within 12-48 hours after being exposed to the plant. The rash is not contagious and will disappear within a week or two, but the risk of a serious infection remains if you don’t treat the rash.

How can I avoid poison ivy?

You should inspect your surroundings and learn to identify poison ivy, oak, and sumac plants before you begin any activity. You should also wear long pants, long sleeves, and sturdy boots while venturing into areas where these plants are common. You should also carry a bottle of water and towel with you while in these areas. The leaf oils can be removed from your skin with water and a towel within eight minutes of contact.

How do I treat poison ivy?

First, remove all contaminated clothing and wash the skin with soap and water. Any equipment and clothing that has come into contact with the oils should be washed with soap and water. Thoroughly wash shoes since the oils can still get in even if they aren’t visible on the surface.

If you experience itching and swelling of the skin then immediate medical attention is required. You will need to take a course of antihistamines and apply cool compresses to the affected area. If you experience a rash or blisters then medical attention is also required as these may indicate an infection.

If you have ingested any part of the plant then seek medical attention immediately! If you experience sore throat or difficulty in swallowing then you may have swallowed some of the poison. If you experience numbness in your mouth or around your eyes then you may also need an antidote.

What is the treatment for an itchy rash?

Take a course of antihistamines and apply cool compresses to the affected area. If the rash does not improve or if you experience any other symptoms then medical attention is required.

Does poison ivy affect my vision?

Sometimes, the oil can get into your eyes and cause temporary or even permanent blindness if not treated. Other skin conditions such as eczema and fungal infections are also made worse by the oils.

Does poison ivy kill you?

No, but it can make you wish you were dead! If untreated, the blisters and rash can cause itching and discomfort for several weeks up to several months. People with compromised immune systems are also at greater risk of developing a secondary infection in the rash.

The rash itches!

How can I stop myself from scratching?

It is important to resist the urge to scratch as scratching can worsen the condition and potentially cause a secondary skin infection. Taking a warm shower or bath can help relieve the itching sensation and anti-histamine drugs may also be used. It is important to see a medical professional as some of the treatments they can provide can speed up the healing process.

If in doubt, see a doctor.

How can I avoid being bitten?

There are ways to reduce the risk of being bitten by a mosquito. The CDC advises people living in areas with a high concentration of mosquitos to wear long sleeved clothing and use mosquito repellent on uncovered parts of the body. It is important to ensure that the repellent contains DEET as this is the most effective. It is also important to ensure that the skin is thoroughly dry before applying a repellent to avoid damaging the skin. People with sensitive skin may wish to perform a patch test before using any repellent for the first time.

I’ve been bitten!

Now what?

Mosquito bites will usually heal themselves within a week, during this time it is important not scratch the bite as this can lead to skin infections. If the bite starts to become red and swollen then you should seek medical attention as you may have an infection.

How do I avoid being bitten by ticks?

The best ways to avoid being bitten by a tick are to check yourself regularly for ticks and also avoid wooded areas with long grass. Ticks are commonly found in long grass and can easily latch onto your skin without you noticing. If you do go walking through long grass, it is a good idea to wear long pants and socks and to tuck your pants into your socks. It also helps to spray your clothing with insect repellent. Checking yourself for ticks is just as important and the CDC advises that you check your entire body upon return from an outing and again before going to bed. If you do find a tick, the proper treatment is to use fine point forceps or tweezers and grip the tick as close to the skin as possible and gently pull upwards until completely removed. If there are any signs of a rash or illness following the removal of a tick then you should seek medical attention.

How do I avoid being bitten by a snake?

The easiest way to avoid being bitten by a snake is to stay indoors! Seriously though, you’re far more likely to be bitten by a dog or even a human than you are by a snake. If you do find yourself hiking through snake territory, make plenty of noise as this will usually warn any snakes in the area to escape. It is also a good idea to wear proper sturdy shoes rather than sandals. It is important that you resist the urge to reach into holes or under rocks as snakes like to hide in such places, again making plenty of noise and throwing something in to distract the snake such as a handy log will usually give the creature time to escape. Another tip is when in doubt, don’t step over! If you see a snake in front of you, don’t step over it and proceed, instead backtrack and go around. It may seem silly not to step over a snake but they can move faster than you think and will often attack a limb in order to defend itself.

If I am bitten by a snake, what should I do?

It is important to seek immediate medical attention if you are bitten by a snake, even if you feel fine. It is important to get the correct antivenin as soon as possible and it is also important not to waste time as some snakes’ venom can be very rapid in its effects. This is especially true if you are bitten by an exotic snake, such as an inland Taipan, Brown/Greenside Sea Snake or one of the many different types of Cobra.

What should I do if I am hospitalised with a Snakebite?

If you are hospitalised for a snake bite, it is important to remain calm as this will reduce the impact of the venom on your body. It is important to tell medical staff what types of snake you have been around and where you have been as this will help them determine which antivenin is best for you. It is also important to try not to move around too much as this may increase blood flow which can speed the distribution of the venom.

Will I need antivenin?

This depends on 3 things.

How severe are your symptoms? How serious is the snake? How sensitive are you?

Some snakes will cause effects such as localised pain, bruising and necrosis around the bite wound. These snakes however may not produce antivenin as they are not a threat to life. Other snakes such as the Eastern Brown can cause life-threatening symptoms within half an hour. These snakes may produce antivenin due to their lethal nature. Then there are the exotic Reticulated Pythons, Anacondas and Taipans that can cause life-threatening symptoms within minutes and can lead to death within hours. These snakes will always produce antivenin due to their extraordinary strength in causing very severe effects very quickly. If you are bitten by a snake and seek medical attention, it is important to tell medical staff what type of snake it was so that they may determine if antivenin is needed.

What should I do if I am not hospitalised?

First things first, seek immediate medical attention. After this is done, you should try to remember as much information as possible such as the time of the bite, your location and what symptoms you are experiencing. It is worth visiting your local doctor as antivenin can be administered in these situations. If you are not hospitalised and do not seek medical attention, then it is important to remain calm as the venom will naturally fade over time as your body produces antibodies to fight the foreign object. It is also important not to move the affected limb as this may increase the spread of venom. However if there is a serious risk of infection, such as in the case of a deep bite, then it may be worth wrapping the limb and moving to somewhere safe. It is important that you seek medical attention after to determine if further treatment is needed.

What should I do if I am not treating the Snakebite?

First things first, remain calm. If you are still in the area of high risk of venomous snakes, then it is important to remain vigilant as some species such as the King Brown can be very aggressive. It is also important to remember that these snakes can often be found sheltering in the same environment that you choose to camp in, so it is important to keep an eye out. If you are in the previous situation however, then it is important to try to find immediate medical attention. It is worth contacting emergency services such as 000 to organise the pick up of antivenin as well as organising transportation to a hospital. If this is not possible, then it is important to contact a friend who may be able to assist you.

What should I do if I am treating myself?

If you are in the situation where you have been bitten by a snake but do not require hospitalisation, then it is important to remain calm. It is important to remember that first aid can save your life so it is worth remembering where you can find out how to. If you are alone, it is important to remember that you should keep the affected limb low as movement can speed up the spread of the venom within your body. It is important to remember that you do not need to see the snake in order to be bitten, so if you have seen a snake and are unsure if it has bitten you, it is important to remain vigilant for the symptoms of venom which are described above. If you think you are experiencing these symptoms, it is important to remain calm, remember as much information about the snake as possible such as its size and appearance and organise transportation or assistance.

What are the prognosis and treatment options?

Treating snakebite can be a difficult process as there are many factors that come into play such as the species of the snake, the location of the bite and whether or not hospitalisation is required. Antivenin can also only be used to treat specific types of snakes and will not work for all types of bites. It is also important to remember that antivenin does not come without risk, and in rare cases it has been shown to cause anaphylactic shock or severe allergic reactions. With this in mind, hospitalisation after a bite may be required to treat the spread of the venom through your body and to ensure you do not go into anaphylactic shock. You may also require the use of antivenin as well as pain medication delivered through an intravenous drip.

Sources & references used in this article:

Occupational poison ivy and oak dermatitis by WL Epstein – Dermatologic clinics, 1994 – derm.theclinics.com

To Prevent Poison Ivy and Oak Dermatitis by WL Epstein – The American Journal of Nursing, 1963 – JSTOR

Allergic contact dermatitis to poison oak and ivy: feasibility of hyposensitization by WL Epstein – Dermatologic Clinics, 1984 – Elsevier

… of jewelweed, Impatiens capensis, the related cultivar I. balsamina and the component, lawsone in preventing post poison ivy exposure contact dermatitis by VA Motz, CP Bowers, LM Young, DH Kinder – Journal of …, 2012 – Elsevier

The poison ivy picker of Pennypack Park: the continuing saga of poison ivy. by WL Epstein – Journal of investigative dermatology, 1987 – core.ac.uk

Hyposensitization to poison ivy after working in a cashew nut shell oil processing factory by RF Reginella, JC Fairfield, JG Marks Jr – Contact dermatitis, 1989 – Wiley Online Library