Soundings: Summer’s curse

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

I really should have known better. It was foolish of me. But the day’s yard work was done and I wanted to protect the kids and I vowed to shower right away. I’d had some good luck in recent years with a skin wash to stop it. I’d be fine.

But a week later, as the doctor ordered a steroid shot and prescribed a week of prednisone, I learned I had only about 20 minutes to wash off the poison ivy sap before it invaded my system. Again.

I’ve had poison ivy. I’ve had bad cases ever since I was a kid. From head to toe. On my face. Between my fingers. Burning and itching and oozing, while I still worked outside in the summer or played baseball or loomed menacingly in near proximity to people surely repulsed by my leprous rashes, crusty blisters and raw ugliness.

Most everyone has stories of poison ivy. It’s a curse of summer shared by many. The stories are told as soon as the outward signs are spotted on a victim — not so much one-upmanship (matching tales to see who’s had it worse) as it is commiseration.

My wife suggested a long sleeve shirt as I began pulling other vines and weeds that day. I’m wearing gloves, I said; I’ll be fine. But my arms were soon road-mapped with scratches and scrapes even before I tackled the poison ivy lurking in those bushes by the house. I’ll take care of it, I said, full of bravado.

I didn’t think my mission would unearth such an intricate, stubborn system of vines. I soon pulled off my gloves so I could really dig my fingers into the roots and get it good.

I should have been too old for such hubris. But it’s just a twiny plant, I thought; this isn’t germ or chemical warfare. Or is it?

Goats can eat it with no ill effect. Birds can eat the seeds and not be harmed. Dogs can roll in it, and nothing happens. But pet that dog or let your skin brush the pant leg that’s got a little poison ivy oil, and humans can erupt in itchy, burning patches that frenzy up the most placid among us.

Some 350,000 cases a year. And if you think you’ve got it bad, find that website with photos of the Poison Ivy Hall of Fame to see who’s really gross.

It’s urushiol, and it’s in the leaves, vines and roots of poison ivy. The oil is so stable and potent it will lurk on tools, gloves and clothes from one year to the next. Even trace amounts will get a reaction, and you won’t be safe if you think winter is a good time to pull it up by the roots. If you inhale smoke from burning poison ivy, you can do serious, life-threatening damage to your lungs.

Urushiol-induced contact dermatitis is the medical name given to allergic reactions produced by the oil when it contacts the skin. Once the oil and resin are thoroughly washed from the skin, the rash is not contagious. And the fluid oozing from those blisters does not spread poison ivy to others. Meanwhile . . . .

The toxic effects of urushiol are indirect; it’s crafty, sinister ways are all about the immune system.

The oil binds to exposed skin cells, reacts chemically and changes the shape of the membrane proteins on those skin cells. The affected proteins interfere with the immune system’s ability to recognize these cells as normal parts of the body. The immune system then targets the complex of urushiol derivatives bound in skin proteins and attacks the cells as if they were foreign bodies.

The result is redness, swelling, papules, vesicles, blisters and streaking. About a quarter of the population escapes such allergic eczematous dermatitis. Another 25 percent will have severe symptoms. Those between these extremes may break out a little, feel itchy and scratchy, and dodge the worst.

But beware: Because it’s an allergic skin reaction, people may have progressively stronger afflictions with subsequent exposures. And “immunity” may come and go over a lifetime.

Most poison ivy cases run their course in two weeks. Antihistamines and hydrocortisone creams may help with the rash and itching. I’ve had good luck with a wash called Tecnu and others recommend Zanfel — but you’ve got to get to the urushiol right away. I didn’t this time, and I got into it up to my elbows.

My forearms were covered with blisters, redness and sores for a week, and I doctored myself as best as I could, and refrained from scratching, and thought it was confined. But when new splotches itchily broke out on my stomach and legs, I feared Armageddon — poison ivy spreading like wildfire, raging out of control, an epidermic epidemic overrunning me.

So I resorted to professional help, got the steroids to get my skin and immune system back in sync, and I’m keeping a respectful distance from the poison ivy still twining in the yard.

I am told it takes years to kill it off, even with repeated doses of herbicides or diligent cutting, chopping and rooting. Let it be; that’s my strategy for now. A fine way to treat most enemies.

Kerry Temple is the editor of this magazine.