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Here They Come: The Poison Plants of Summer

Spring has sprung, and summer is around the corner. You know the signs. Dad burns the grill, the oil company raises gas prices, and the kids come with an itchy rash. The poison plant is back, and this summer they promised to send two million Americans to the doctor's office.

The three most common causes - poison ivy, oak poison, and sumac poison - come from America. European explorers have never seen them before. Around 1600, Captain John Smith recorded his meeting when he wrote, "The grass is poisoned in many ways like our English ivy, but touched, causing redness, itching, and finally, burning."

Pocahontas can warn him. After all, Native Americans know all about poison ivy. The Indian warriors rubbed their arrow tips with it, and the medicine man rubbed the leaves on the infection in an attempt to break the swollen skin.

The colonial doctor paid attention. They jumped on the poison ivy tank and expanded its use for the treatment of herpes, eczema, arthritis, warts, shingles, and even snake bite bites. The use of poison sap in early American medicine was so widespread that poison oak was listed in U.S. Pharmacopoeia. as the official therapeutic agent.

Today we know that poisonous plant rash is contact dermatitis. After the first exposure, most people develop antibodies to sap. At the next exposure, antibodies invade the sap, causing a rash. Some who don't make antibodies, won't get rash. But they still have to be careful - the production of antibodies can start anytime, making fools of poor Uncle Pete a day or two after he has sprayed poison ivy up and down his arm to prove he is allergic.

So what's a poison sap? The offending chemicals are urushiol, yellowish oil in the leaves, stems, and roots of poisonous plants. Because it is in the plant, uninterrupted leaves will not harm you. However, if the leaves are chewed by insects, trampled, or damaged, the oil melts onto the surface of the plant where it can come into contact with human or animal skin. As it turned out, only humans and primates were associated with the rash. Dogs, cats, cows, and sheep are not affected, but they can deliver oil to their caregivers. Clothes and tools also spread oil, and since the sap has remained allergic for many years, unsuspecting spring gardeners have been able to get rash from last season's gloves.

If you come in contact with poison sap, or at the first sign of a rash, you need a long shower with plenty of soap and water. Avoid sinking in the bath as the oil floats, spreading to other parts of your body. Washing the oil from your skin will stop the spread. Rash can still appear in new areas, but this is because areas that are exposed to smaller amounts of sap take longer to come out.

Once you have a rash, it lasts for a while. The skin needs repair itself, a process that takes 10-14 days. All you can do at the same time is to treat the symptoms. In mild cases, over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams and oral antihistamines - such as Benadryl - are a great combination for controlling inflammation and itching. If you have extensive rash, facial involvement, or blisters, it is time to see your doctor. You may need steroid pills, blows, or antibiotics.

As always, prevention is best. The three poisonous plants have compound leaves with three leaflets. My grandmother once said, "Leaf three, you let them go!" and he's right. The leaves are shiny with a smooth surface. In the fall, the foliage can turn orange or red. Poison ivy is a strong vine that climbs trees often. Poisonous oxides are larger and more rich in shrubs. Poison Sumac grows in swampy areas and can reach up to twenty feet in height.

There are drugs that prevent rash by providing a barrier to exposed skin. IvyBlock (bentoquatam) is available at the counter and is approved for ages six and up. It should be used 15 minutes before exposure and reused every 4 hours for continuous protection.

So get out of there and enjoy Spring. Bake your burger. Fill your tank. Take a trip in this country. But when you get there, remember what my grandma said. Otherwise, you might end up in the waiting room, scratching your wound with two million other Americans.

COPYRIGHT 2006 MIKE PATRICK JR, MD



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