Thursday, September 15, 2011

You're Gonna Need an Ocean...

If you are as old as I am, which is to say not at all, then you might remember the Coasters hit "Poison Ivy". You know, the one that went "you're gonna need an ocean (dum-de-dum-de-dum) of calamine lotion." Well that song is actually about a girl named Poison Ivy (written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller), while my recent encounter was with the actual plant, and is why my dispatch is late this week. My fingers are now only the size of hot dogs (down from sausages), and I feel like I can type well enough to get this off to you.

Firstly, let me say that the staff at Samoset Resort in Rockport, ME, are absolutely fantastic, and have really helped me to convalesce. I booked a timeshare rental at their 230 oceanfront acre resort, in the hopes of discovering the beauty of Maine's mid-coast. But I wasn't twenty minutes into my first hike in the woods when I tangled with Toxicodendron radicans, a.k.a. poison ivy. Now in my defense, I am from the Pacific Northwest, and poison ivy is generally found east of the Rockies. I do remember hearing something about "leaves of three" (or was it four?), but I certainly didn't know what it looked like. I know exactly what it looks like now.

So for those of you not in the know, let me pass along some wisdom that may prevent you from discovering the misery of an encounter with Toxicodendron radicans. First, it's not ivy at all. The "poison" part is spot on, but it actually belongs to a completely different family of plant, found only in North America. It can take the form of a thick climbing vine, a wispy trailing vine, or a shrub as big as 4 feet tall. Additionally, it can grow in the understory of a forest, at the edges of wooded areas (where I found it), or in exposed rocky outcrops. It's pretty well drought tolerant and can thrive in a range of different soil types and acidity. In other words, it's everywhere, and how it took me this long to come face-to-face with it is beyond me.

There are a few things you can do to learn to identify it, however. It does indeed have three leaves which range in color from light green to dark green, and tend to be shiny. In the fall however, they turn red and fall off, as poison ivy is deciduous. Another rhyme you may have heard is "longer middle stem; stay away from them," which is also a useful identification tip. The "leaves of three" are arranged in such a way that the middle leaf has a noticeably longer stem than the other two. And, each cluster of three has its own stalk connecting it back to the main vine. In the spring and early summer you may even see its flowers, which are a pale yellow or green. The flowers give way to a grayish berry in the late summer months. But if you really want to be able to identify it, I suggest taking the photo attached to this posting, print it out, and keep it in your pack whenever you are heading out into the woods. Likewise, take it out in your yard and look around the perimeter and on tree trunks to see if you have any on your property. You may be in for a surprise.

But once the horse is out of the barn, getting rid of poison ivy's rash is all one cares about. The plant's sap contains something called urushiol: a clear liquid to which most people are allergic in varying degrees. Let's just say I am very allergic to it, but not as bad as this guy. Urushiol typically causes a red, itchy rash, which then can give way to blisters. If left untreated (and unscratched) it will usually go away on its own in about 10-14 days. But if you have ever had poison ivy, you know it cannot go unscratched. The scratching often opens up the rash and causes a secondary infection. Urushiol is very sticky and stays in place no matter how hard you scratch it. In fact, unless you can successfully wash it away, you are are going to prolong your rash. But keep in mind that urushiol is not water soluble. So simply using soap and water is not going to cut it. You must get the oil off of your body, and there are many soaps designed specifically for this task. The one I was treated with is called Tecnu, and it contains small granules to help scrub the oils off. If I ever see the person who invented it on the street, I am going to kiss him or her, directly on the mouth. This stuff saved my life, or at least it felt that way. It certainly saved the rest of my trip from being spent in absolute misery.

Lastly, I would like to dispel a few myths about poison ivy and the treatments for exposure to it. Despite what that song says, calamine lotion does not stop the rash nor remove the oils causing it. Ditto for cold showers and compresses, Burow's solution, and jewelweed. They certainly help with the itching and are good secondary treatments after the oil has been removed. But I implore you to use a product like Tecnu that was designed specifically for this purpose. Also, you cannot give your poison ivy to someone else from the blisters on your rash. Remember, urushiol is not water soluble and will stick to you no matter what. You should not get your bodily fluids on other people for other reasons that should be obvious, but you won't spread your poison ivy in this manner.

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