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The Blistering Facts about Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac


Those beastly little plants called poison ivy, oak, and sumac should not be part of the summer landscape

They're irritating - both figuratively and literally - and for many people cause suffering through blisters and intense itching. Poison ivy, oak, and sumac can fool many of us - they grow up the trunks of trees as vines, they slither along as ground cover, and mimic bushes and trees. It's a fallacy to think they thrive only in the woods - look around city parks and even in your own back yard.

How does it happen and what can you do?

Those tiny, miserable blisters are caused by contact with urushiol, the oil behind all the frustration. It is long-lived and can remain on clothing for at least a year. That old jacket that hangs in the garage or the gloves used to pull up last year's poison ivy crop will pass the same oils along the next time they're worn. If the family pet runs through a patch, the oils cling to the fur and begins the transmission to humans.

It can take a couple of days after contact for the rash to develop. That will depend on how long your inner defenses need to begin fighting the invasion. From there, expect a couple of weeks of misery. Over-the-counter cortisone medications are the best bet along with anti-itching aids. Old-fashioned calamine lotions can work well for some, too.

In the rare case of a severe allergic reaction or if the rash covers large or sensitive areas, a doctor can prescribe stronger applications and may give an injection.

Whatever you do, resist the urge to scratch. While it won't spread the rash, it can cause very serious secondary infections through the introduction of surface bacteria. The end result can be even worse that the initial attach.

If you know that contact has been made with one of these poisonous plants, wash using an oil-cutting soap (like dishwashing detergent or shampoo) and water. Launder all clothing in hot water, if possible. Decontaminate shoes and tools with detergent.

Getting rid of the source

If you recognize poison ivy, oak, or sumac in your back yard, it's time to begin an eradication program. It won't be easy, either. While you can use certain herbicides, they will also effectively kill everything else around.

Never burn off any poisonous plant. The smoke is just as dangerous if inhaled and can cause a severe internal reaction. Every part of the plant carries the oils, even when dead - and that goes for wintertime, too.

It is possible, with time, to eradicate most of it. Begin by cutting back to the ground. Be ready to bag and trash immediately. Wear heavy rubber gloves, rubber boots if you have them and clothing that covers all body parts. Be sure to wash these immediately afterward.

In a few days or weeks, new shoots will appear. Keep trimming away using the same precautions each time. As time passes with aggressive cutting, the plants lose their ability to nourish through new shoots.

Patience and persistence are required when dealing with poison oak, ivy, or sumac, whether suffering through a reaction or trying to remove the source.


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Pittsburg, TX 75686
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