Poison ivy is a toxic plant that can cause a severe inflammatory reaction to the skin. Learn more about poison ivy.
What is poison ivy?
Poison ivy is a venenous plant that presents a threat to a large number of people. Fairly widespread in Canada, it usually grows on uncultivated lands, particularly in ditches, roadsides or in nature trails. It can also be found on or around rural or residential properties.
This weed can be difficult to recognize, as it can take many different appearances. As a general rule, it is a bushy plant that has no thorns, measuring between 20 centimeters to 1 meter high, depending on the variety. A stem has three green leaves, but the leaves can also be red or brown and still be toxic. Even when the plant is dead, it can cause an intense reaction to skin.
What are the harmful effects of poison ivy?
The sap contained in various parts of the plant is made of a toxic substance called urushiol, which causes a severe skin reaction manifested, among other things, by:
- significant itching
- pain or burning sensation
- swelling and redness
A typical reaction cause by urushiol can occur after:
- direct contact with poison ivy (thus, the feet and legs are often affected)
- contact with an object soiled by the toxic substance (clothing, animal hair, gardening gloves, and so on)
- exposure to the smoke produced when the plant is burned
It may take a few weeks before the cutaneous manifestations disappear completely.
Poison ivy and ragweed—what is the difference?
People frequently confuse poison ivy and ragweed because the terms are very similar in French. Other than their names, these plants are similar in that they are both weeds that can cause health issues. Poison ivy affects the skin by causing a severe inflammatory reaction, while ragweed causes allergic manifestations, especially of a respiratory nature in people that are sensitive to it.
Pollen produced by ragweed causes an allergic reaction commonly called “hay fever” in millions of Canadians during the summer. Because ragweed is often found on roadsides and vacant lands, outdoor strolls or car rides can turn into a nightmare for allergic individuals. Contrary to poison ivy, ragweed is safe to touch and can be pulled out with bare hands.
For additional information about ragweed and allergies related to it, read the following text: How to recognize and treat a ragweed allergy.
What should you do if you come into contact with poison ivy?
If you have come into contact with poison ivy or its sap, start by removing your clothing and clean the affected areas with soap and water.
If you have a skin reaction, it is recommended to:
- Avoid scratching (this makes itching worse).
- Apply a cold source to the affected area (i.e. washcloth soaked in cold water) or take a lukewarm bath.
- Speak to a pharmacist before applying any product whatsoever on the affected area of the body, as some agents could worsen your symptoms.
- Use a product to calm itching (i.e. calamine lotion), if recommended by a pharmacist.
In the case of a severe reaction, it may be advisable to see a doctor, who may prescribe medication, depending on the nature and intensity of your symptoms.
How can a reaction to poison ivy be avoided?
To avoid the unpleasantness of a reaction to poison ivy, it is first recommended to learn to recognize the plant and to avoid all contact with it. You can also take certain precautions:
- Wear boots or close-toed shoes and pants if you are walking in an area conducive to the growth of poison ivy.
- Wear long pants and waterproof gloves if you are gardening.
- Wash any article of clothing or item having been in contact with the plant or its sap.
- Avoid burning the plants and any of its components.
See a healthcare professional able to make a diagnosis and explain what to do if you think you may have come into contact with poison ivy. Your pharmacist can inform you of the ways to recognize poison ivy and the measures to take to get rid of the plant and treat the skin reaction it causes. Don’t hesitate to speak to a pharmacist.