Beware the Poison Ivy…It’s Stronger Than Usual This Year

Poison ivy is an itchy menace to many of us who venture outside during the warm weather. Whether you are hiking in a forest or in your own backyard, it pays to know how to identify this toxic plant. Avoidance is better than dealing with the consequences, at least if you’re one of the many who react badly to it.

This year, people should be especially watchful because the combination of cool, wet weather we have had in Michigan this spring has made the plant even more potent.

 

Spring showers made poison ivy more powerful, MSU educator says

Jun. 23, 2014

Written by
Robin Erb
GANNETT MICHIGAN

Gentle rains may have aided the growth of poison ivy in many backyards this year, MSU horticulture experts say. It can be a concern for people who don't go hiking and camping.

Gentle rains may have aided the growth of poison ivy in many backyards this year, MSU horticulture experts say. It can be a concern for people who don’t go hiking and camping. / Rebecca Fineran/MSU Extension

 

The gentle spring rains that have been fabulous for your flower gardens can be blamed for those blistery, itching, scratch-till-they-hurt sores as well.

Poison ivy — the annual threat to campers, anglers, hikers and even suburb dwellers — is “more robust” this year than usual because of the moisture, said Rebecca Finneran, horticulture educator at Michigan State University Extension.

And no, she said, the record-breaking cold in the winter didn’t keep it in check as some might believe.

“Native plants can handle this weather,” she said. And this spring’s precipitation? “They love it.”

Poison ivy, also known as Toxicodendron radicans, contains urushiol, an oil that can cause an allergic reaction ranging from mild to severe. Although three-leafed poison ivy can grow as a woody shrub, it also can appear as a slender vine running along the ground or climbing shrubs and trees.

That means being on your guard for what you might be wading through, what your shoulders might brush against or even what’s overhead in trees, Finneran said.

And the oil is tenacious. It’s spread by touching the weed and by touching something else that touched it, too — petting your dog who ran through it or pulling off your garden gloves that rubbed up against it, Finneran said.

She said often people mistakenly believe that poison ivy is something only campers and hikers need to worry about. Not so. The vine loves a good utility pole to climb.

Real estate appraiser Ann Wizinsky found out the hard away.

She was planting tomatoes this spring at her home in Novi when her brother noticed the three-leafed foliage around her.

“He said, ‘It’s right there, and right there and right there,’” she said. Poison ivy is spread by its root system or berries.

A few days later: Blisters began appearing near her elbows and eventually stretched up her arms to her chest and face and to her legs.

Over-the-counter medications and an oatmeal bath provided only temporary relief.

“I wasn’t sleeping at night because I was always itching,” she said.

A steroid treatment and several weeks later, the blisters are gone, but she’s still itching. She said her brother, a landscaper, has since shown her pictures of poison ivy so she knows what to watch for.

Dr. Earlexia Norwood has seen a handful of cases already, which is fairly normal for this time of the year.

Poison ivy causes itchy lesions and welts and can be extremely uncomfortable for many people, but is not life-threatening, said Norwood, a family medicine physician based at Henry Ford Health System’s Troy Medical Center.

Still, everyone’s tolerance for poison ivy and other potentially toxic plants is different. She remembers one patient who was covered completely from face to toe with lesions. The key to keeping the rash in check is to identify it quickly and seek treatment. Scratching it can spread the oils, she said.

If a person has trouble breathing or swallowing, they need to seek treatment immediately, said Norwood, who encountered poison ivy once herself while weeding her backyard.

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