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Friday, May 8, 2020

Outdoorsy Girl's Guide To: POISON IVY

Happy FRIDAY and welcome to my first post in the Outdoorsy Girls Guide To ______ series. 
Each week, we fill in the blank with some useful knowledge for playing and staying outside. 

Today's guide is all about identifying and educating yourself about Poison Ivy. 
This post is timely as with the presence of COVID-19, we are seeking the outdoors as an escape now more than ever.  Lately on my morning runs and afternoon hikes, I can see poison ivy popping up e v e r y w h e r e.  So today, we talk about this pesky plant that will ruin any outdoor adventure.  On the topic of contracting and identifying poison ivy, I feel like an expert. If you hike, walk or run with me and have to listen to me point out these leaves 500 times, you are welcome and I'm sorry in advance. 

how to spot Poison Ivy, Oak & Sumac

I grew up as one of those people who only had to look at poison ivy to acquire the red itchy rash.  Being the tomboy that I was, I was constantly battling the aftermath of poison ivy with calamine lotion.  I have distinct memories of going to sleep as a child with a bathing suit and sock on my hands so I wouldn't scratch the painful rash in my sleep.  I also remember laying out in the sun in lounge chairs, trying to dry out this nasty rash after an especially bad reaction forced me to stay home from school.  At one point, I had it on the bottom of my feet for months, likely constantly reinfecting myself through Olive who sleeps at the foot of my bed. 

The big problem was I really didn't know anything about it, especially what it looked like.  If you don't know what poison ivy looks like, OR if you rely on others to point it out for you OR if you are out there just walking around hoping for the best, cut that all out right now.  Being able to identify poison ivy is essential to any avid hiker or outdoorsy adventurer.  But before we get started, the key to identifying poison ivy is knowing a little bit about it.  

Where is it
Poison ivy is found across North America, with the exception of the far north and parts of the southwestern deserts.  To prove that it is literally everywhere, I have gotten it here in Connecticut and in the desert of Moab, Utah.  While you can find it along the trails, climbing trees, or even in your backyard or garden, you can almost always find poison ivy by the water.  It likes to grow around streams, marshes, riverbeds and this is often where I run into this pesky plant.  

Poison Ivy: Busting 6 Myths to Avoid the Itch – Cool Green Science

What Does It Look Like 
Leaves of three, let them be! This is the biggest thing you can remember.  If you see three leaves bunched together with an oily hue (regardless of the color) it is probably poison ivy.  It can be on a vine or in brush and it has pointed tips.  If you are looking beyond the leaves or out and about in winter, thick, hairy vines are a hallmark of poison ivy plants.  The color varies from reddish in the spring, green in summer, and yellow/orange in the fall. I can always tell this plant apart based on how oily the leaves always look.  Poison ivy vines will also sprout small opaque white or yellowish berries that look like tiny pumpkins.  Rule Of Thumb:  If it has three leaves just stay away.  If it has three oily leaves stay far away.

Poison ivy isn't the only thing we have to worry about.  The outdoors also provides us with poison oak (similar but with rounded leaves - generally a shrub) and Poison Sumac (long pointed leaves).  While these are also a nuisance, I feel like poison ivy is by far more prevalent when I spend time outside.

Allergic or Not 
If you are allergic to urushiol (the oil on poison ivy) you have a reaction to poison ivy.  NOT everyone is allergic to urushiol (you lucky, lucky people). Because urushiol is present in the plants’ roots, stems, and leaves, it remains potentially poisonous even in the wintertime.  While touching the plant directly will give you an itchy rash, the oil persists on other materials for a long time.  Also, NEVER burn these plants. Burning releases the oils in the air and you can even get poison ivy in your lungs. 

Reaction Time
Some sources say you have about 10 minutes before the sap penetrates the lower layers of your skin and binds to its cells, at which point an allergic reaction will set in.  If you touch a plant, immediately rinse the exposed area with running water with a mild soap.  Use a rag or cloth to remove the oils.  Some studies show that the actual rubbing is what removes the oils from the skin, more than a cleaner.  I always keep a bottle of tecnu handy to scrub down after a suspected PI contact. 

Tecnu Outdoor Skin Cleanser Original | Walgreens

Healing time and Reinfections 
The rash should heal in about 1-2 weeks.  To relieve some of the itchiness, apply wet compresses, calamine lotion, or hydrocortisone cream.  Oatmeal baths and an antihistamine may help as well.  Extreme cases may require the help of steroids to get rid of the rash. 

What is important is that you get rid of the source of poison ivy.  If you have a rash that seems to hang around for a while or seems to be "growing", the oils are on something you keep touching.  The rash itself is not contagious.   Urushiol - the oil that causes the rash of poison ivy, is very hardy and long-lived and it can remain in the environment, on clothing, sleeping bags, etc. for years. According to the CDC's Niosh Guide, Urushiol can remain active on the surface of objects for up to 5 years. If I have any suspicions I have been in contact with poison ivy, I wash all of my gear several times.  And myself.  And the dog. 

Dogs and Poison Ivy 
Dogs do not get poison ivy but their fur can carry the oil - if you suspect your dog has been in poison ivy, wash them THOROUGHLY with gloves with soap.  

How To Avoid
1)  The best way to protect yourself is to be aware of what the plant looks like, and where you can find it.  Knowledge really is power my friends.  Once you know what it looks like, you can put on your laser focus when hiking to make sure you avoid this plant at all cost when you stop for a pee break or wander into a nearby stream.   With that being said, the best way to avoid it is staying on dirt trails (no bushwhacking or exploring into the green brush).  

2)  Barriers!  I almost always find poison ivy on my ankles in the summertime.  I likely brush up against it while hiking along the trails and suffer from itchy ankles throughout the summer.  Wear long pants and taller socks when hiking in the woods.  When you get home, throw your clothes right in the washing machine and take a shower. 

3) Leash your dog!  Keeping your dog on a leash keeps them from wandering into poison ivy plants and infecting you.  Simple but super effective.  If you think they were infected (or want to be extra cautious) give them a bath with soap while wearing rubber gloves. 

Leaf Identification Guide

Poison ivy is everywhere and anyone who has had it can attest to how awful this reaction can be.  Here in New England, it is really making an appearance and I hope you know before you go, how to avoid contact.  Before you head into the woods, give yourself a quick little refresher on how to ID this poisonous plant. 

Happy Hiking
Watch those leaves!

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