Summer is one of the best seasons for exploring the outdoors, but even the most experienced hiker or camper can fall victim to that dreaded rash-inducing menace: poison ivy. Though the plant itself can be identified with its three-leaf growth pattern, there is no other guaranteed-easy method to proving that this itchy irritant is loose in your area. Even when dead, a poison ivy vine is capable of holding oils that can cause an allergic reaction! But don’t despair: even those with allergies to poison ivy can fight back by learning the science behind how the itch occurs, and with these tips you can keep yourself from ever having to suffer that dreaded rash ever again!
How it Occurs
Urushiol (the chemical name for the itchy oil) is found in poison ivy, poison sumac a poison oak, and is especially harmful to humans due to the autoimmune reaction is creates on the skin. Over 85% of people are naturally allergic to urushiol, and even those who aren’t can still show symptoms from enough exposure. The oil itself is greasy, nearly invisible and hardly water-soluble at all, transferring to surfaces like skin, hair and clothing with ease.
Why it Itches
Just touching poison ivy by itself isn’t typically enough to cause the allergic reaction, but rather leaving behind or not completely removing the oils off of your skin is what inevitably causes the red, blistering itch. Once the oil has remained on your skin for any length of time, the body metabolizes it through the skin before recognizing the urushiol as an antigen, which in turn sends white blood cells to fight the intruder. The problem is that the white blood cells attack the surrounding tissue as well as the oil, damaging the body and causing inflammation. With that knowledge it’s clear that the trick to beating the itch actually lies in the oil itself, and how to keep it at bay.
How to Prevent P.I.
If you think you’ve been exposed to poison ivy (or even after a hike through the woods), the first step to preventing a reaction is to remove your clothing and immediately wash it in a degreasing detergent. NEVER sleep or sit on furniture in clothes that may have been exposed to poison ivy, as urushiol easily rubs off on to other surfaces and can remain a danger for years. Next wash your hands and forearms with degreasing dish soap, being careful to attend to the creases and spaces between your fingers and on your hands as these areas are the most common places for urushiol to collect. Once your hands and forearms are washed, repeat one more time to make sure the oil has been completely removed. Next it’s a good idea to carefully wash your face, ears, and neck with degreasing soap as well since these areas may have been exposed to accidental contact. Follow up the whole cleaning regiment with a shower, and you can be sure the last of that nasty oil runs down the drain!
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