Affinity Health Plan

  • Poison Ivy is Always in Season

    September 08, 2015

    Poison Ivy is everywhere. It's in New York City, the surrounding suburbs and throughout rural areas. It's in city parks, back yards and on hiking trials. In fact, it is one of the most common poisonous plants in the United States. Only two states, Hawaii and Alaska, don't have it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    Touching poison ivy can cause unbearable itching, along with a painful rash with bumps and weeping blisters. The oily substance urushiol, which is produced by the plant, causes these symptoms. Contact with any part of poison ivy, whether it's dead or alive, can cause this bad reaction. Changing seasons does not make poison Ivy less virulent, either. "The poison from this plant is always active all year round, even in the winter time," said Dr. Avi Silber, Chief Medical Officer of The Greater Hudson Valley Family Health Center. Once touched, it can take from one day to a week before the red itchy rash appears. Also, in some cases, it can take up to a month to heal.

    Contracting poison Ivy once offers no immunity. That is because anyone who touches it suffers an allergic reaction to the sap. "So each time you touch it you will get it again," Dr. Silber pointed out.

    The best cure for poison ivy is prevention.  If you are going hiking wear long pants, socks and a long sleeve shirt.  "Use barrier creams - which create a barrier from the sap touching the skin - (i.e. Ivy Block) may prevent some poison ivy," said Dr. Silber.

    Know what it looks like, and avoid it:

    • "Leaves of three, Let it be!" is the best reminder of what poison ivy looks like.
    • The leaves are shiny green and appear in groups of three on the stem.
    • The leaves turn red in autumn.
    • Poison ivy vines can look hairy and are ropelike.

    Urushiol, the plant's oil, can enter skin rapidly. If your child or you should come in contact with poison ivy or anything that has touched the plant, please follow the National Institute of Health's Library of Medicine recommendations:

    • Try to wash your child and your skin within 10 minutes of contact.  Wash thoroughly with soap and warm water.  Scrub under the fingernails with a brush to prevent the plant oil from spreading to other parts of the body. Note: That time frame is crucial. "Washing within 10 minutes after exposure can reduce the likelihood and the severity of symptoms," said Dr. Silber. "Washing the skin after 10 minutes of exposure typically will not help."
    • Bathe in lukewarm water with an oatmeal bath product, available in drugstores to soothe the skin.  Aluminum acetate (Domeboro solution) soaks can help to dry the rash and reduce itching. Try using calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream on your skin to reduce itching and blistering.
    • Body heat and sweating can aggravate the itching. Stay cool, dry place and apply cool compresses to your skin.

    Anything that touches poison ivy will have the oil on it, and you can get poison ivy just by touching it. "Use rubber gloves," Dr. Silber said. The plant oils can linger on pets, clothes, hats, glasses, sneakers, shoes, utensils, and tools - in short, anything. That oil can remain active for up to five years, according to the CDC. "The point is, if you do not wash it off, you can keep getting the rash," Dr. Silber cautions.

    If you have a pet, and it has come in contact with poison ivy bathe the animal immediately to remove the oils from its fur. Wash all clothing and shoes with soap and hot water. Wash all tools and utensils thoroughly with bleach or rubbing alcohol or lots of soap and water. Also, after removing the gloves make sure to wash your hands again to make sure that no residue is on you.

    Dr. Silber said a doctor should be seen "if the rash is severe or widespread, or affects the face or genitals."  If it is oozing, and there is worry about infection, then a doctor is needed.  "If it is not going away after two weeks or you are not sure it is poison ivy see a doctor," he said.

    One other point: Never start a fire to get rid of poison ivy. Burning this poisonous plant can be very dangerous because if poison ivy is inhaled it will cause severe lung irritation and respiratory problems.

    Avi Silber, MD, FAAP, is the Chief Medical Officer for The Greater Hudson Valley Family Health Center. His specialty is Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. Dr. Silber is a graduate of Temple University School of Medicine, and he holds an undergraduate degree in biology from SUNY Binghamton. He is a member of the American Association of Pediatrics and the Orange County Medical Society. Dr. Silber and the staff at The Greater Hudson Valley Family Health Center provide services to members of the Affinity Health Plan.

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