Itching to Start Gardening? Read This First...

It's a cool summer evening. You're sitting around your fire pit with your family, drinking wine, laughing, and watching the fireflies light up. You cleared some brush out of the yard earlier and decide to toss it into the flames.

Within a few minutes, your lungs are on fire. Your throat swells shut, and you can't breathe. By the end of the night, you're in the ICU fighting for your life.

It sounds like an exaggeration, but it happens every summer – folks don't recognize common poison plants and wind up with anything from a mild rash to a trip to the ER with a swollen throat.

One plant everyone should know is poison ivy. But poison oak and poison sumac also cause the same symptoms.

Our Health & Wealth Bulletin managing editor recently got a poison ivy rash on her neck. She thought she took all the appropriate precautions while clearing poison ivy from her yard – wearing long sleeves, pants, and gloves – but she spent more than a week with the rash.

So with the advent of the summer season and more folks spending time outdoors, we wanted to do a review of what these plants look like, some popular misconceptions about them, and how to treat a reaction.

1. It's not always the same "leaves of three"...

The old saying "leaves of three, leave them be" isn't encompassing. That's because poison ivy, oak, and sumac don't all look alike:

Poison ivy: Three leaflets on a stem. Leaves can be smooth-edged or have toothed edges. Glossy appearance. Red/green in spring, green in summer, and yellow/red in fall. Typically grows as a climbing vine. Found throughout the U.S. except for in Alaska, Hawaii, and some of the West Coast.

Poison oak: Clusters of three leaves. Leaves have toothed edges. Fuzzy or glossy appearance. Changes from green to yellow/red with season change. Often mistaken for oak tree leaves. Typically grows as a shrub. Found in the eastern and southern regions of the U.S. as well as the West Coast.

Poison sumac: Clusters of seven, nine, or 13 leaves appearing on either side of a single stem. Leaves have smooth edges. Stems are red. Changes from green to yellow/red with season change. Typically grows as a tall shrub, up to 20 feet tall. Prefers swamp or bog habitats.

2. You can't spread the rash, just the oil.

All three poison plants produce urushiol oil. Anything that touches these plants will get oil transferred onto it.

Now, the oil causes the allergic reaction. 85% of Americans are allergic to this oil, and an estimated 50 million folks have a reaction every year. Mild reactions include an itchy rash. You might also develop tight skin, blisters, and "weeping" from the rash.

Scratching isn't good for you – it will only keep the area inflamed. And if you haven't gotten all the oil off your skin, you may spread the oil elsewhere. But the rash and blisters themselves won't spread the rash. You also can't get poison ivy from someone else's rash or blisters if there's no more oil on their skin. That's why if you've come in contact with anything suspected to be a poison plant, you should wash the affected area immediately with soap and water.

However, you can aso get it by third-party contact with the oil. So if you use gardening tools to dig up poison ivy and don't clean them, the next time you pick them up, that oil can still transfer to your hand and give you a rash. Similarly, pets can get the oil on their fur, and if you touch that fur, you'll get the oil transferred to your skin.

3. Once you kill the plant, it's still not safe to handle.

The oil doesn't just go away when the plant dies. It can survive on dead or dried up plants for up to five years. And it can last on other surfaces (like gardening tools) for up to two years and still cause a rash.

The reaction I mentioned in the beginning of this article is an important one – never burn any brush, weeds, or wood that has poison plants mixed in. The oil can burn and get into your airways, causing swelling, difficulty breathing, and – if not treated right away – death.

4. Use some common sense for treating it.

Aside from avoiding the scratching, you should keep the affected area clean. That's because open wounds and rashes with blisters can invite bacteria into your system and cause an infection. If you develop a fever or if the redness and pain doesn't subside in about a week, see your doctor.

Oatmeal – either in lotions or added to a bath – can calm the rash. Cool compresses and calamine lotion also help.

But beware of some products... According to the physician's reference UpToDate, the following can worsen the rash from poison plants:

  • Anesthetic creams containing benzocaine
  • Antibiotic creams containing neomycin
  • Antihistamine creams or lotions
  • Bacitracin

5. The best way to tackle it – prevention. You should know what poison plants look like and use extra care to treat them.

Here are a few other tips to keep you itch-free this summer:

  • Keep your pets away from any poison plants. If they come in contact, wash them right away.
  • Clean any tools that came into contact with poison plants.
  • Wear gloves, a hat, long sleeves, pants, and socks with your shoes to avoid any direct contact on your skin.
  • Avoid touching your face, neck, or anywhere else that's exposed.
  • Wash everything you've worn once you're done – including your work gloves and shoes.

Readers know I love spending time out in my garden. And I'm not about to let poison ivy stop me. Do what I do and use these common-sense tips to educate yourself and avoid the problem.

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Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
June 11, 2020