Poison Ivy: An old enemy lies in wait for the unsuspecting
Poison ivy has a new wardrobe for each season: red and green in spring, matte green in summer and brilliant gold, orange and red in fall. (NANCY BEAN FOSTER PHOTO)
Poison ivy reliefMild cases: Benadryl and Calamine lotion can ease the itch. Dr. Christine Doherty of Milford also said that oatmeal baths and naturopathic remedies like calendula gel can help.
More serious: Rashes that cover more than 10 percent of the skin or affect the mouth, eyes, hands, neck or genitals may require corticosteroids.
"Every five years or so, I get poison ivy," said gardening expert Margaret Hagen of the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension. "It usually takes me four to six weeks to get rid of it. It's awful, so I try hard not to get it."
In the spring, the three-leaved plant is reddish-green and shiny. In the summer, it becomes a dull, matte green almost like poinsettia leaves, Hughes said. And in the fall, poison ivy takes on the quintessential fall colors, turning brilliant red, orange and gold.
The plant spreads through underground runners, said Hughes, but also with the help of birds who eat the seeds from poison ivy berries in the fall and drop them into stone walls or garden beds or into rivers, where they travel downstream and take root.
Getting rid of poison ivy is a chore, said Hagen, because the plant is hardy, will grow in just about any conditions, and is invasive. With a small infestation, she recommends going after the plant and its roots with loppers and applying weed and brush killer to the open cut on the stem. Larger patches can be fought back with some persistence and some Roundup or an organic acid-based herbicide — both of which come with drawbacks and controversy.
"Poison ivy thrives when people aren't paying attention," said Hagen.
When it comes to disposing of poison ivy, the most important rule is to never, ever burn it, said Hagen. When burned, the oil from the plant becomes airborne and can be inhaled into the lungs, causing an internal case of poison ivy that could require hospitalization.
Hughes and her employees are all susceptible to poison ivy, so they use extreme measures to ensure the urushiol oil doesn't contaminate their equipment, vehicles or skin.
After handling the ivy, Hughes and company carefully strip off their protective clothing and throw it away, and then scrub with Tecnu, a product that binds to the oil and prevents it from being absorbed into the skin.
Anything that comes in contact with the oil should be washed immediately after exposure — including clothing, shoes, and especially pets, who can track the oil around the house. Unless it's exposed to rain or some sort of solvent like rubbing alcohol, urushiol can hang around for years, Hughes said.
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