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Poison ivy is abundant this year because of recent rain and a mild winter.

Poison ivy is abundant this year because of recent rain and a mild winter.
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Publish Date: 07/11/06
Media Contact: AHC Public Relations, (513) 558-4553
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UC HEALTH LINE: Poison Ivy--Leaves of Three, Let it Be

CINCINNATI—Beware! A mild winter and recent rain in the Ohio Valley have produced an abundance of poison ivy in the Tristate area.

University of Cincinnati (UC) physicians are already seeing plenty of patients who have developed the characteristic blisters. And uncomfortable, sleep-robbing itch isn’t all of it. Contact with the dreaded “leaves of three” can even send some sufferers to the emergency room.

Allergy to poison ivy is genetic. If your parents are susceptible, chances are you are too, so some 50 to 80 percent of us are in trouble.

The actual “poison” in the plant is an oily ingredient called urushiol, which is irritating to all people. Babies are less sensitive to it, some people develop a reaction only after multiple exposures, and others become less sensitive as they age.

In the Midwest poison ivy grows everywhere. Birds eat the berries and drop the seeds onto even the most tidy gardens. Most poison ivy patients had been working in the yard or landscaping and came into contact with the cut leaves, stems or roots of the plant.

But by taking a few precautions, and acting quickly if you think you have touched poison ivy, you can reduce the risk of ruining the next few weeks of your life.

Follow these tips from Kathy Downey, MD, associate professor in UC’s family medicine department, and you can remain blister free, or avoid the worst if the mean green does get you:

If you think you have been exposed to poison ivy, Downey says, wash well with soap and water within 10 minutes to prevent the rash, which can spread to other parts of the body if the oil remains on the hands.

Once the oil is washed off the skin or clothing, the initial rash cannot spread, and the weeping blisters are not contagious. However, oil that remains on the shoes, gloves, or gardening tools can spread from there, so wash or clean these areas with a cloth and alcohol.

If you are allergic to poison ivy, Downey advises, wear long sleeves or an over-the-counter ivy barrier cream. Drugstores also offer over-the-counter poison ivy scrubs kits that quickly remove the oil. After yard work, wash all clothes and bathe with soap and water as soon as possible.

Teach children to recognize and avoid poison ivy, and they should be changed and bathed quickly if they say they’ve been in contact with it.

If a rash does appear, bathing blisters in cool water with oatmeal or applying cool compresses may reduce the itching. Calamine lotion, antihistamines and topical steroids can also help relieve itching and speed healing. In severe cases, a doctor may prescribe steroid shots or pills.  

And much, much easier said than done, “Try not to scratch, since it can cause open sores that become infected,” Downey cautions.

Here’s Downey’s checklist for an itch- and infection-free summer:

• Respect the greenery. Learn to recognize the “leaves of three” and “let it be.”
• Avoid river banks with dense undergrowth, where most poison ivy lurks.
• Wear long sleeves, gloves and long pants when working in the yard or hiking.
• If you must walk in weeds, apply an ivy barrier cream before you venture out.
• Remember that poison ivy oil can cling to clothes for months and cause an  allergic reaction in any sensitive person who touches them.
• Wash skin and clothing with soap and water immediately after exposure to poison ivy.
• Watch where your pets go and bathe them regularly with warm water and shampoo. Oil on their coat can transfer to you.

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