One of the most common ailments during the spring and summer is contact dermatitis caused by poison ivy, oak or sumac exposure. At least 50 percent of the population suffers from sensitivity to the oily resin called urushiol found in the leaves, stems, flowers, berries and roots of these plants.
The sensitivity can present as a mild itchy, red and blistered rash or develop into something more serious, such as hives or a skin infection. These reactions usually begin within five to 48 hours of exposure but can occur up to 15 days after contact. While symptoms usually last for only two to three weeks, there are severe cases that linger for six weeks and longer.
When a person is first exposed to the urushiol, it might take a week or more for symptoms to occur, but with subsequent exposures a rash usually develops within one to two days. The more oily resin you come in contact with, the worse the reaction. The worst cases occur when smoke from burning plants is inhaled. The inhaled allergen can affect the nasal cavity and lungs and lead to hospitalization.
The No. 1 way people are exposed to urushiol is by coming in contact with plants. Poison ivy grows everywhere in Kentucky, so it might be helpful for people to be able to identify these three-leaved plants.
What people often forget is that the oil also can be spread indirectly. Your shoes, shoelaces, pets, clothes, garden tools and other items can all spread the oil to your skin if touched after they have come into contact with the plant.
One common misconception is that poison ivy is contagious. Once the oil is washed from the skin, you are no longer contagious. The blisters and bumps that might burst and seep do not contain urushiol. They cannot spread the allergen.
Prevention is the key. Wear long pants, sleeves and gloves when appropriate. Apply Ivy Block, which helps absorb the oil, lessening the reaction. Wash your pets, clothes and tools to prevent indirect exposure.
The oil remains potent for years. If you suspect exposure, wash with soapy cold water immediately. Warm water opens the pores and allows the oil to penetrate the skin quickly.
If a rash develops, treat it with cool, wet compresses and bathe with Aveeno. Antihistamines, cortisone creams and calamine lotion often help alleviate symptoms as well. See a health care provider if the rash is widespread, on your face or genitals, or becomes infected.
Dr. Marilyn Verseesch, an internal medicine and pediatrics physician, will begin seeing patients at Baptist Physicians Richmond in August.