Dr. David Adams, who is a dermatologist at Penn State Hershey, does not believe the recent news that poison ivy has become stronger and more prevalent lately.
As a lifelong outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, hunting and hiking, Adams says he hasn’t seen significant changes in the location or prevalence of poison ivy, nor the size of the leaves: “I think people are just out more and so they’re coming into contact with it more.”
Around 75% of the population will get an itchy red rash upon exposure to the urushiol oil inside the leaves, stem and roots while the remaining 25% won’t react to the exposure. Contrary to popular belief, Adams says you can’t get poison ivy simply by brushing against its leaves. “You have to actually break the leaves, stem or root to get the urushiol oil on you.”
Although most people to contract poison ivy seek a medical expert for treatment. Adams sees some of the more serious cases each summer, but the intensity has not altered since the last 15 years. He does see a few patients who get poison ivy during winter holidays.
“What happens is that people buy a live Christmas tree, and there are dead vines on it that they rip off, not knowing what they are,” Adams said. “The urushiol oil inside is still viable.”
The oil can remain on inanimate objects for a long time, so Adams advises laundering clothing and cleaning garden tools after use. He will run across someone every now and then who was exposed to poison ivy after using a chainsaw to cut down trees which have mature vines of the plant roping up the trunk that are decades old.
In other cases, people disposing waste and debris and burning all the garbage make the oil airborne, causing anyone with exposure to the smoke to exhibit swelling and itching on the entire face.
“The most common method, though, is that someone is pulling out weeds and then they rub an eyelid or something,” Adams says.
Although the procedure does not take place instantly, but the symptoms still come at a considerably early time of 10 days post exposure, while those who have had it in the past react typically a day or two after coming into contact with the plant’s oil.
Poison ivy is not normally passed from one person to another, nor by scratching areas that itch.
The treatment is variable for the severity and location of the reaction. For mild, localized cases, a topical treatment works quite well. But when the itching is excruciating, proper medical attention is called for. More serious cases may require prescription creams or a two-to-three-week round of oral steroid.
“The biggest mistake that primary care doctors make is prescribing a Medrol Dosepak for six days,” he said. “It always seems to rebound after that, so it seems that isn’t long enough.”
He adds the best way to prevent a reaction is to steer clear of the plant and its oil by adhering to the old saying: “Leaves of three, let it be.”