by Francis Skalicky/Missouri Department of Conservation
Here’s a head-scratcher: If you see an abundance of poison ivy growing in various places in summer, does that make it a “good year” or a “bad year” for poison ivy?
Regardless of which side of this discussion you lean towards, there’s one thing all people can agree on – now is the time of year we need to be on the lookout for it. Poison ivy can make you scratch at any time of year, but spring, summer and early fall are when most people experience the itching problems caused by this plant.
Yes, the plant is in its primary growth phase at these times of year, but an equally valid reason these seasons see the most poison ivy problems is simple – it’s when we’re outside the most. It’s a basic fact of life in this area: If you’re outside very much, you’re probably going to eventually get the itchy, blistering skin rash caused by poison ivy.
That’s because poison ivy grows in a variety of locations. Forests, fence rows, stream banks and road sides are among the many places it can be found. It is sometimes confused with other plants, but there are characteristics that help distinguish poison ivy from its look-alikes. Poison ivy has three divided leaflets, a center leaflet on an extended stem, white waxy berries (at certain times of year) and leaves that alternate on the main stem.
Poison ivy has some food benefits for browsing mammals and birds, but these benefits don’t make the plant any less troublesome for humans. The source of the poison ivy problem is its toxin, urushiol. This oil, found in all parts of the plant, is what causes the irritating skin reaction. Touching any part of the plant, including the roots, can cause your skin to break out. You can get the poison ivy rash from merely handling the clothes or shoes of people who have come in direct contact with the plant. Humans can also get the toxin – and the skin rash that comes with it – from the fur of pets that have brushed against the plant.
Don’t let the fear of poison ivy keep you from enjoying this area’s wonderful outdoors. Knowing what poison ivy looks like is a great way to reduce your risk of coming into contact with the plant. However, the ways of getting poison ivy are so numerous that even observant vine watchers sometimes get the rash. Consequently, the poison ivy information that’s useful for most people has to do with treatment. The most important treatment tip is a simple one – as soon as you know you have it, put something on it. There are numerous over-the-counter remedies that can ease your itching and keep the rash from spreading.
Washing with soap and water can help, but this action isn’t a totally fool-proof method for avoiding poison ivy problems. Soap and water can remove poison ivy’s toxic oil from skin if you wash it within a few minutes of coming into contact with the plant. After this, the oil begins to bond with the skin, making removal much more difficult. In spite of this, a thorough scrubbing after coming in from outside is always a good idea. There’s still a chance it might reduce your poison ivy infection and it also might wash off any ticks or chiggers you may have picked up. If you get poison ivy, here’s another simple tip – don’t scratch it.
Information on how to identify poison ivy can be found at your nearest Missouri Department of Conservation office or at mdc.mo.gov.
Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.