Among the first lessons that a prospective hiker or camper learns when they hit the trail is to steer clear of poison ivy, oak, and sumac. These plants are notoriously innocuous-looking and are pervasive in the exact areas that outback enthusiasts love, making them a nuisance at best and an outright danger at worst to anyone who finds themselves hitting the trail. The chemicals coating the leaves of these plants can induce massive inflammatory reactions from even the slightest contact with human skin, giving them the capacity to stop a hiking trip in its tracks from even a mild brush against their foliage.
Coming into contact with poison ivy can induce a serious reaction within 24 hours and initial symptoms can be felt in as little as four. Experienced outdoor enthusiasts are well aware of this, but novices may be less informed. Regardless of your experience in nature, here’s what you need to know to stay safe.
Recognizing Poison Plants
Take the time to familiarize yourself with the appearance of all three plants before you go hiking, ideally by viewing a sample of them. If possible, check your local parks directory to find out which one you are most likely to encounter so that you know exactly what to look for. Make sure you recognize what it looks like if someone has run afoul of poison plants. Look for a harsh red rash with rapidly forming blisters and a feeling of painful burning or itching where a person has touched foliage.
The tricky part of treating the rash that occurs with these plants is that since the poison is in an oil on the surface of the leaves, it can easily rub off on anything it touches. Additionally, it is an abiotic chemical and remains potent for some time if deposited on clothing, furniture, or personal effects. For this reason, the first thing that anyone providing treatment needs to do is put on gloves; otherwise, there will be two victims in short order. Any clothing that may have touched the poison plant should be removed and immediately laundered.
Something to try while you’re still in the vicinity of the poison ivy plant is jewelweed. This plant is often found growing near poison ivy. Mash it up and put it on the affected area as soon as you can, and leave it there until you get to an area with soap and water. Studies have shown that jewelweed can be effective–not soaps containing jewelweed or the like, but actual crushed-up jewelweed.
As soon as you can, wash the rash with lukewarm water. Use soap to break up the oil. Calamine or hydrocortisone ointments can help topically, but be careful not to smear or rub these on (just dab on the rash area), as doing so may spread the oil even farther across the skin. If blisters form, do not pop them as this greatly increases the chance of infection; similarly, do not scratch at inflamed skin.
A poison ivy rash generally isn’t serious, however. But since the rash starts out mild or asymptomatic and worsens over time, the unfortunate victim may at some point fear that they need medical treatment beyond creams and lotions. In reality, creams and lotions will suffice for most poison ivy exposures — and feel free to take a warm bath too, as this can help relieve itching.
It’s not only Batman that needs to worry about poison ivy! The plant can easily escape notice until someone begins displaying symptoms. Knowing what you are looking for and staying on cleared and marked trails is your best bet against poison plants, and, for that matter, a whole host of other hazards that can be found in the great outdoors.