Leaves of Three, Let It Be

By Doug Coffey, Fairfax Master Gardener Intern
poison ivyMy neighbor, an Iranian immigrant, decided to remove a large bush maybe 4 to 5 feet tall and nearly as wide between our properties. I had ignored it, knowing it was so covered in poison ivy that the original plant was unrecognizable. I decided it was better to leave the “bush” alone until I could figure out how to get rid of it. But my neighbor, not consulting with me and not knowing the risks, got out a shovel, dug it up, pulled it out, cut it into pieces and hauled it to the curb. Within hours, he was in the emergency room and then several days after in the hospital getting massive doses of steroids. He was so uncomfortable with the extensive blistering, rash and itching that he couldn’t even find a way to sleep. Even thinking about it today makes my skin itch.

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) contains a lacquer-type oil called urushiol, (you-Roo-shee-all) that can cause redness, swelling and blisters.

Urushiol is found in all parts of the plant — the leaves, stems and even the roots, and is part of the plant’s defense against browsing animals and human beings who try to remove it. The oil is mostly colorless to watery yellow and has no odor. It is secreted from any damaged part of the plant. Urushiol fools the body into thinking there is something foreign in the body and causes a violent immune system response.
Urushiol can contaminate clothing, tools, pet fur or other objects and effectiveness can persist up to five years. It is such a strong toxin that ¼ ounce would be enough to give every human on earth a rash. Some people are severely affected and will get pain and weeping blisters from skin contact. Other sufferers may just have mild itching and redness.

Within minutes of contact with the oil, the skin starts to absorb it. But you don’t feel it and don’t see a rash right away. Once urushiol has penetrated into the skin, attempting to remove it with water is ineffective. But it is worth noting that you cannot give the rash to someone else. Even if the person touches your rash or the fluids in your blisters, the person cannot get the rash. The person has to come into contact with the oil. It usually spreads from unwashed clothes, bedding, tools, pets or fingernails where there is still plant oil.

For people who have never been exposed or are not yet allergic to urushiol, it may take 10 to 21 days for a reaction to occur the first time. Once allergic to urushiol, however, most people break out 48 to 72 hours after contact with the oil. T