Project Planning & Tips

An ounce of prevention: Poison ivy exposure in the garden

The spring rains are slowing down and it’s time to get out there and dig in the garden. This is the season gardeners wait all year for. Don’t let the poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac creepers interrupt a wonderful summer.

Each one of these poison plants contain the same irritant, urushiol oil. This is the stuff that causes the rash.According to the Mayo Clinic, gardeners and landscapers are two of the most at-risk victims of urushiol exposure. Some people are not allergic to urushiol, but those who are certainly can recognize the red rash and annoying itch after a brush with the stuff.

Many of the warnings about avoiding urushiol are repeated year after year: wash the area immediately with an anti-oil soap to hopefully avoid a rash. Make sure to wash all clothing separately to avoid the oil spreading on other clothes. We all know the basics, but following their advice is easier said than done. A little prevention goes a long way when it comes to urushiol oil.

Search for images of each plant in its new, adult and dormant stages. Learning to identify all the signs of the ivy is important, as the urushiol oil is present and potent in each stage. Even the non-leaf stems of poison ivy plants can contain urushiol oil.

•     Young poison ivy leaves may have one notch on one side. In the fall, the adult green åleaves turn reddish orange and curl a bit. Poison ivy comes in threes and has pointed tips. It can grow on vines or as a shrub and can have white berries.

•     A poison oak leaf comes only in threes and has a rounded point (as opposed to poison ivy’s sharp triangular point) and will have a stem of three leaves first on the left then on the right. It never has thorns. Poison oak isn’t as much of a creeping plant as poison ivy; Poison oak grows straight up.

•     Poison sumac is a branched shrub with multiple tiers of leaves sprouting from one main stem. It likes to grow in wetland areas. It can grow to tree heights. The leaves are multiple and their stems are red. The leaves are oval with rounded edges, not notched or sawtooth edges. The poison sumac leaf tip comes to a point.

The FDA has also approved some topical preventative substances that are applied to the skin much like sunscreen. A “poison ivy blocker” offers some minimal protection against a slight touch of the skin against urushiol oil plants. If you can’t take the “long sleeves, pants, gloves and masks” advice for preventing exposure, perhaps an application of poison ivy blocker lotion is a good Plan B.

The USDA’s site advises people to wash any exposed skin with soap and water within 10 minutes of exposure. This may work in a garden setting, but camping or hiking poses more of a problem, especially since you may not be aware of exposure until the rash appears, when prevention’s window has closed.

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