In the next few weeks people across the country will celebrate the arrival of warmer temperatures by taking weekend hikes through places scenic and undisturbed. Most of these people will return from their hikes revived, but some will find themselves itchy afterwards. It's inevitable. And it's unfortunate, too, because there are ways to avoid the adverse effects of Poison Ivy and Poison Oak.
Actually, five species of rash-inducing plants flourish in North America: two species of Poison Ivy, two species of Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac. The last is a wetland plant and not nearly as common or commonly encountered as the others. All contain the same essential oil, though, that irritates human skin.
Urushiol is its name, and it exists in the roots, stems, leaves, and even the berries of these plants. Roughly 85 percent of the population is allergic to Urushiol, which can cause a rash in sensitive people who come into contact with as little as one millionth of a gram of the stuff. And all of these plants are more than willing to share their Urushiol if they are bruised, crushed, or opened up in any way.
Thus it's important for people to know how to identify these plants. Most field guides, including eNature's online version, provide concise descriptions and photos. But even the most attentive hiker can inadvertently brush against a Poison Ivy or Poison Oak leaf. When that happens, there are two ways to rid the skin of Urushiol.
The first involves washing the affected area with great amounts of water. Plain water is best, since soap has no effect on Urushiol and when used with only a little water it can actually spread the offending oil. So use room-temperature water and lots of it.
The second way to rid the skin of Urushiol is to swab with rubbing alcohol. The alcohol counteracts the oil and can even draw oil from the skin four or five hours after exposure. Waiting any longer than that, though, is inadvisable.
Whether cleaning with water or alcohol, use care. Don't scrub violently -- it does no good and can actually do harm. Similarly, don't use very hot water or harsh soaps and chemicals. The point is to remove the oil, not to annihilate it.