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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

All About Poison Ivy

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood speaks with Susan Carol Hauser, author of the book titled Nature's Revenge, for practical advice on avoiding, identifying and coping with outbreaks from contact with poison ivy.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Ah, summer. Finally time to enjoy the great outdoors, right? Well, Mother Nature isn't always glad to see us. The itch inducing trio of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac, lurk just about everywhere in North America. And just because you've never had it before doesn't mean you won't get it. Author Susan Carol Hauser, who's written the new book Nature's Revenge, thought she was immune until -- well, let's let her tell the story.

HAUSER: Well, I thought I was one of the chosen immune. That I was not going to get poison ivy. I waded through it all of my life, merrily, with people yelling at me, you're going to get poison ivy. And I never did, so I didn't pay any attention until about 5 years ago. And I was helping a friend clear some brush, and I wore leather gloves and jeans and I covered up all my skin, and 3 days later I broke out in a terrible rash that -- I'd been sitting on berries and the juice from the berries soaked through the back of my jeans --

CURWOOD: Uh ohhh...

HAUSER: And the backs of my legs became like raw hamburger. So I became inspired to find out about poison ivy and found there was very little reliable information on it. It was very difficult. So I started doing some heavy research.

CURWOOD: All right. So you went out, you did that research, and you can tell us now the secrets of it. First of all, what is it that happens when you're exposed to poison ivy or poison oak or sumac? Is it the same thing?

HAUSER: Yes. The oil in the plants, in all 3 plants, is exactly the same. It's called arusiol, and it's an almost invisible -- well, it's invisible to us in the quantities that we would see it in. It's a very clear, thin oil that flows in canals in all parts of the plant. When the canals get broken by something such as a broken leaf or even an insect bite, the arusiol comes out and sits on the leaf and waits for a human to pass by, and when it gets on our skin 85% of us will have an allergic reaction after our first exposure. As with most allergic reactions you have to have a sensitizing exposure. Then the next exposure, the body decides that this allergen is a dangerous thing and goes after it.

CURWOOD: You started scratching.

HAUSER: I did start scratching and I will probably continue to do so for a while. Because the experience of having poison ivy is so intense that even thinking about it brings back the memory. I think the skin remembers the assault.

CURWOOD: All right. Now we called you here today specifically to get the secrets of how to deal with this stuff once you get it.


CURWOOD: What do you do if you're exposed to it? What should you do if you think you've been exposed to poison ivy?

HAUSER: The first thing you do if you're going to be outside is to have someone help you identify the plants and do learn what they look like, because it does help to avoid contact. But the second thing to do is to take care to respond to the presence of the arusiol if you think you might have gotten into it. And there are a couple of ways to do that. One is to bathe in lots and lots of water; it takes copious amounts of water. Don't just use a washcloth over your skin; get under running water so that you dilute the arusiol. But the best thing I found out in my research and it's wonderful, it's inexpensive, wonderful, pretty much benign, is that rubbing alcohol is an organic solvent and neutralizes the arusiol.


HAUSER: So we keep a Mason jar with rubbing alcohol in it, with a cloth, and we take it when we go hiking and we keep one in the garage when we worked outside. You just take the cloth and swab it over your skin, you don't have to scrub. And then wash with lots of water. And it will neutralize the arusiol and prevent a reaction up to 3 to 4 hours after exposure. Whereas water you have to use within less than an hour. The arusiol starts to bond with your skin in 10 to 15 minutes.

CURWOOD: Okay. But what if we didn't notice so we didn't have the alcohol with us or we didn't wash and we're starting to get that itchy feeling?

HAUSER: Yes. It'll start with just a little kind of itch and you won't even realize it's poison ivy. And then it'll start getting red. And the next day it'll start to blister and ooze and do terrible things and people won't want to come near you.


HAUSER: Because they don't know if you can spread the poison ivy or poison oak to them.


HAUSER: And in fact you cannot. The blisters, the fluid in the blisters is body serum and does not contain the oil arusiol, which is long gone from your skin; it bonded within 10 to 15 minutes, and unless you're recontaminating yourself from clothing or tools, you cannot get -- your exposure to the arusiol is done. So you don't have to worry about spreading it by scratching the blisters. As you start reacting, if you have a mild case and you can avoid scratching, use home remedies and over the counter drugs like cortisone creams, calamine lotion, compresses of Avena, oatmeal solutions, vinegar and water is another good one. And whatever you can use that's comforting to your skin and allows you to not scratch it. If you must scratch, and you have a big case with bad blisters and over more than a fourth of your body or on your face, you should get some kind of help. There are prescription drugs that stop the reaction. The prednisone, cortical steroids, injection and pills, will stop the itching. They have side effects, they might make you feel bad, but they will stop the itching.

CURWOOD: What about the home remedies, or rather the folk remedy I'm thinking of, of jewel weed?


CURWOOD: You know, it's a long, spindly plant, and you're supposed to be able to use the sap from that to protect you.

HAUSER: Yes. The stem of jewel weed is very juicy, like an aloe plant.


HAUSER: And it's an old American Indian remedy for poison ivy and for other things. Many people report good effect from using this immediately; as a preventive they wash with it after they've been in the woods. Or as soon as they feel a rash they start using it. They've done clinical studies with this, and it works about 30% of the time.

CURWOOD: Okay, but for right now what I should do is, I'm out walking, I should stay on the path. If I get off the path I should look out for those plants.


CURWOOD: And if I am not careful about it, if I think I've got the stuff, I should wash off with rubbing alcohol.


CURWOOD: And then a lot of water.

HAUSER: That's right, a lot of water, yes. Also, watch out for your clothes, your bicycle tires, any tools you're using. The oil arusiol bonds within 10 to 15 minutes to human skin, but it stays active for years on objects. So if you get some on your tennis shoe laces and you put your tennis shoes away in the fall and take them out again in the spring, or in January, you can get arusiol on your hands from your tennis shoes. And then you scratch your face and you've got poison ivy in January, and you wonder where in the world it came from.

CURWOOD: Susan Carol Hauser's book is called Nature's Revenge: the Secrets of Poison Ivy, Poison Oak and Poison Sumac and the Remedies. And now you know the secret remedies that she does. Thanks for coming and joining us.

HAUSER: Thank you so much. I enjoyed it.

(Music up and under: "You're going to need an ocean of calamine lotion. You'll be scratching like a hound the minute you start to mess around. Poison ivy! Poison ivy! Late at night while you're sleepin' for that after comes a-creepin' around. La da la da la la...")

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood.



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