The summer backyard nuisance is back and it’s not the barking dog or nosy neighbor. It’s itch season and you don’t need to live in a leafy suburb to be affected. Two recent studies show increased CO2 in the atmosphere (thanks to global warming) is creating super-sized poison ivy plants (toxicodendron radicans) with more potent urushiol. The urushiol oil contained in the leaves, stems and roots of poison ivy cause the itchy rash or allergic reaction. Not only are the poison ivy plants packing more of an itchy wallop, there’s more of them. Over the past 50 years the growth rate has doubled increasing the odds of coming in contact with the plant. They tend to grow in shaded, woody areas climbing up trees but may grow as a shrub or ground cover. The old adage “Leaves of three, let them be,” still holds true. The pointed leaves may or may not be shiny and can be light to dark green turning red or yellow in the fall.
In my garden, over the past 13 years, I’d say the growth rate has more that tripled with this year being the worst. About 80% of people react with an allergic, itchy rash. There is no way to desensitize people allergic to poison ivy. Even in winter the leafless “dead” stems and vines can cause a rash. Never burn poison ivy leaves or vines, even dead ones as they will release urushiol into the smoke.
Cats and dogs are not generally affected by poison ivy but short-haired or hairless breeds like the Sphynx can suffer from poison ivy. If pets have brushed by a poison ivy plant and we then pet them, our skin may be exposed to urushiol. If pets exposed to poison ivy then unwittingly brush up against a person, an item of clothing or other object, the urshiol is transmitted. That means you could live in New York pet a dog who had been gamboling in poison ivy patch in the Hamptons and get a nasty rash. Most shockingly, an item contaminated years ago like an old pair of sandals and then worn can create a fresh cycle of itchies.
I personally can attest to getting mild rashes from old contaminated items including flip flops, garden tools, beach bags, tennis balls, sunglasses to name a few. I have no doubt my penchant for gardening without gloves is to blame as is our adventurous cat and gardening assistant Odin. Our garden is organic and I prefer to remove poison ivy plants instead of using toxic chemicals but the plants have long root system and are difficult to keep at bay.
- My anti-itch solution is largely preventative. If you suspect you may have come into contact with urushiol, shower or wash hands vigorously with soap and rinse thoroughly with cool water. I use Tecnu or Calagel the moment I feel an itch. There is a 15 minute window between contact and itching so act fast.
- Wash your clothes and items touched by poison ivy i.e. beach towel.
- Don’t touch your face or rub your eyes before treatment.
- If your pet has been in contact with poison ivy and/or is itching try a bath in gentle oatmeal shampoo or lavender camomile pet shampoo from Gerrard Larriett
- If you don’t want to bathe, use a wet paper towel or gentle wipes from EarthBath
- Use gloves (I use disposable surgical gloves) when handling items that may have trace amounts of urushiol.
- Wash pet’s collar, leash, harness.
- Please note: a pet’s itching can be from causes other than poison ivy i.e. allergies, hot spots, fleas, ticks, parasites.
To learn more fascinating facts about poison ivy, sumac and poison oak visit POISONIVYinfo
To see images of different kinds of poison ivy visit Poison-Ivy.org