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Health Column: Protect yourself from these ‘poison’ plants


During the summer, considerable emphasis is placed on ways to safeguard against tick bites. Less discussed but also important is how to avoid the omnipresent threat of poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac — three plants that all cause the same itchy, persistent skin rash. 

“As I say, know your enemy,” said dermatologist Antoinette Notaro, M.D., of Schweiger Dermatology in Mattituck. “Three shiny leaves? Always a problem.”

Most people know that being exposed to poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac can cause redness, itching, swelling and blisters. Fewer are aware that the condition, which generally lasts around two weeks, is caused by an allergic reaction to the sap found in the stems, leaves and roots of these plants.

“Not everyone has this allergy,” Dr. Notaro said. “But around 90 percent of people do, so by the far the majority of people should be on the lookout.”

According to Dr. Notaro, no test is available to determine whether you are part of the 10 percent of the population who isn’t sensitive to urishiol. That’s why it’s so important to wash your skin immediately after coming into contact with the sticky substance.

If you develop a rash anyway, Dr. Notaro said, you can seek reassurance in the fact that the infection can’t be spread to other parts of your body once the sap has been washed off.

“Usually, by the time you get the reaction, it’s several hours to days later and you’ve washed off the sap,” she said. “If the sap is still there, you can spread it. But by the time you’ve seen the blisters, the sap is usually gone.”

While you can’t spread the infection to yourself or to pets — which aren’t sensitive to urishiol, Dr. Notaro said — pets can infect you if the sap gets on their fur.

Another important thing to know, Dr. Notaro said, is that you can’t spread poison ivy by scratching.

“A lot of people think the liquid in their blisters is contagious,” she said.

Most cases of poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac can be treated with over-the-counter products, like corticosteroid cream and soothing lotions. But Dr. Notaro said you should seek medical treatment “when it’s beyond what you feel comfortable dealing with yourself — especially if you have it on your face, if it’s getting near your eyes or if you’re having trouble breathing.”

The latter can be catastrophic, Dr. Notaro said, and requires emergency medical intervention.

If you do visit the doctor, you’ll likely be given systemic steroids, which Dr. Notaro said “reduce the inflammation and the rash.” If you have blisters that have become infected due to incessant scratching, antibiotics may also be prescribed.

To avoid contact with poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac, Dr. Notaro said, you should “dress appropriately” when gardening, landscaping or hiking.

“The same way we talk about trying to avoid tick bites, dress with long pants and wear long sleeves,” she said.

In addition, Dr. Notaro recommends wearing gloves and securing them at the wrists with rubber bands when working outdoors. Over-the-counter barrier creams like Ivy Guard also provide protection when applied beforehand.

“If you know you’re going to be working in an area that you can’t avoid, we often tell people [to dress] like you’re going to an Environmental Protection Agency cleanup site,” Dr. Notaro said.

Photo Caption: Poison ivy and poison sumac. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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