How to deal with poison ivy: a true camping nightmare

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Nothing puts a damper on camping fun like having your face swell up like Quasimodo. That bracing trek to the lake and back yesterday was just what you needed. What you don’t need is the itchy rash that has you dancing and shaking like the King of Rock and Roll. Let’s try not to get poison ivy again, okay? Quick primer on what it looks like, how to avoid it, and what to do once you’ve gotten it (besides your twist moves):

  • Poison Ivy: “Leaves of three, let them be!” is a refrain you probably know, and it’s true. Poison Ivy grows in clusters of three leaves. In the south and east it grows primarily as a vine that can wind it’s way through grass or around trees.
  • Poison Sumac: There are 7 – 13 smooth, pointy-tipped leaves on a stem. Sumac grows as a shrub in wooded, wet or swampy areas.
  • Poison Oak: This one can also grow in “leaves of three”, or it can be tricky and have as many as seven oak-like leaves on a stem. It grows either as a vine or shrub, and is more common in the western U.S.

The oil in these plants, called urushiol, is the culprit. When you come into contact with it, either directly, from your pet that has it on its fur, or from picking up your pack that’s been lounging in a patch of it, the trouble begins. Your body views urushiol as a toxic invader and goes all ninja on your sorry self, causing itching, bumps, blisters or hive-like streaks. What to do?

  • Avoid it! Study the pictures and be aware of what you’re walking in. Remember too that in the fall these plants have berries on them, and can change to beautiful fall colors. Be on the lookout and err on the safe side.
  • Wash it off! Plain water and lots of it, splashed on the areas you likely contacted it is the best way to flush the oil from your skin before it soaks in. Remember the secondary ways you can get it too, and wash your hands frequently.
  • Too late! What now? Wash with cool water and lots of it. If you just stepped in it (so to speak) and don’t have any water to spare, be on the lookout for jewel weed. It looks like this:

Jewelweed.JuvenileSlice open the stem and rub the insides on the area; some say it completely neutralizes urusiol. Other people swear by an oatmeal paste, a bit of rubbing alcohol on the rash, or – believe it or not – rubbing the inside of a banana peel on the rash to stop the itching. If a store is handy, over-the-counter products like antihistamines, calamine lotion or Super Ivy Dry can help. If it’s really bad, you might need to see a doctor. Here’s a website with lots of information:

If you have any tips on how to avoid or treat poison ivy and it’s toxic cousins, let us know. And come visit us soon! We’d still like to see your Elvis impersonation.

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