Poison Ivy and its Impact on Humans
You may have heard the poem in your childhood, ‘leaves of three, let them be’, yes, it did refer to the three poisonous plants to try to keep you away from the itchy leaves. Poison ivy is and always has been a troublemaker for all who dare to come near. The myth says, as soon as you touch the plant or harm it, it gets back with a scratchy revenge. Is there any truth to this saying or are they just empty words? Many people don’t actually know what poison ivy is and the disease that it causes. You may be surprised, but a lot of tame plants can mimic this wild danger, which is why it becomes necessary to tell them apart for your own safety. So, to help you out with this task we have gathered all the important information to teach you how to get rid of poison ivy as well as identify the disease itself.
Taking the story back to the basics, poison ivy is actually a plant. It appears as normal as any other plant, which is why it can be pretty difficult to spot. In the scientific world, the plant is known as Toxicodendron radicans. The plant is usually found growing in Asia and North America. Although the plant is eaten by many animals as well as birds, it still harms humans who come in contact. However, contrary to popular belief, it does not cause its specific rash in everybody. Rather, only those people who are sensitized to it are in danger of its poisonous symptoms.
There are several types of the plant, but all have a characteristic woody stem. Some climb like vines on the trees or trail down like the trailing vines, whereas others take the appearance of a shrub, but wherever they appear, they only cause harm. Besides their damaging effects on humans, they also cause a multitude of problems for the plants that grow with them. This is because poison ivy is widely regarded as a weed that sucks the life out of your healthy plants. Coming to the appearance, yes, the plant does have 3 almond shaped leaves as the poem goes. The color of this foliage resembles those of normal plants, with light-dark green in spring and a more red-orange-yellow appearance, characteristic of fall in the later months.
The plant does not have any thorns and supports a smooth and shiny leaf surface, with few or no jagged edges. The vines that grow up or down a tree develop aerial roots as they mature. With time these gain support from the tree to become firmly and strongly attached to its branches and trunk. The poison ivy also blossoms, giving off yellow-green or white flowers that are bunched up in clusters. These, in turn, form fruits that resemble berries which are eaten quite enthusiastically by many animals and birds during the winter months. This fruit-eating process is also a means of spreading the seeds of the plant to continue its generation.
Distribution and habitat
Obviously, wherever the plant grows excessively there will be increased chances of exposure and danger to locals. Hence, finding out the home of this plant may caution you against touching wild growths that could possibly give you a painful rash. However, this does not mean that poison ivy can’t end up in your backyard! Rather, an overall estimate of its distribution gives you the likelihood of having a face to face with the plant while the rare chance of seeing it in other places still remains. So, where does this trouble maker commonly lurk? Well, the poison ivy is stated to be a frequent inhabitant of North America. In addition to this, it is also commonly spotted in all the states of the US, present east of Rocky Mountains. Mexico, New England, and South East US have also seen poison ivy as a backdoor visitor. In addition to the English area, poison ivy is also found in some areas of Asia, including Japan, Taiwan, and Russia, stating the wide areas already in reach of this plant.
Like every other plant, poison ivy also has some preferences, which favors its growth. The plant is able to grow in many different types of soil with varied pH. However, it fails to grow in dry, desert conditions, but it seems to be resistant to overhydration as it is seen in floods. This means that the plant can grow and inhabit any area that it colonizes which goes to highlight the problem its spread may cause. What’s more, a research into its habitat suggests that poison ivy contorts to the level of carbon dioxide in the air. The plant is a carbon dioxide lover and is abundant in areas which have lots of it in the atmosphere.
Aids to identification
Of course, to protect oneself from this plant, you need to be able to identify it. There are certain features that can aid you in the process. However, be wary, the plant has many appearances in different places and even in the same place which can fool the best specialists. Furthermore, damage to the plant, winter shedding, and varied types of growth of the plant makes matters tough. Usually, the standard points used to set apart this plant include:
- 3 leaflets present in clusters of the plant, which also relates to the ‘leaflets 3’ poem
- Leaves that are arranged in an alternate manner with one here and the other there.
- No thorns on the plant, as it is poisonous enough without pinching you
- 3 leaflets grow on a separate stem which is then attached to the main stem
Considering the above features, you can identify the plant and prevent yourself from brushing against it. Many children’s rhymes also try to focus on the identification to help children identify these plants. Rhymes like “leaflets 3, let it be” and “hairy vine, no friend of mine” are great examples of caution that try to warn kids of this poisonous plant.
Effects on the body
Having discussed the main specifics of the plant itself, you may wonder what exactly does the plant do? Well, before we tell you about the immense damage its capable of in your body, let’s first introduce you to the culprit that is actually responsible for its effects. Poison ivy is actually filled with a chemical called Urushiol. Basically, it is a mixture of chemicals called Pentadecylcatechols, which are allergy causing substances. The clear liquid is present within the sap of the plant and as soon as someone touches or harms the plant it oozes out, becoming black after prolonged exposure to the air. This chemical is responsible for the rash and other symptoms of poison ivy. Although naturally intended as a water absorbent for the plant, the chemical acts as an allergen for the human body.
The problem is that it can spread in many ways. Directly touching the plant will obviously give you the disease, but besides this, touching your animals who have been in contact with it, touching humans who have been in touch with it or simply being present in the air around the plant. This means, for protection against it requires thorough effort. So, what does the Urushiol really cause? Contact with this chemical results in a disease called contact dermatitis. However, as mentioned before, not everyone gets the symptoms immediately. Rather, it takes a long time and repeated exposure to the plant in order to build a sensitivity to it which results in the disease.
Once you are sensitized, however, Urushiol binds to the skin when it comes in contact and initiates its sequence of toxic reactions. This results in a severe rash accompanied by itching, immediately taking the form of bumps which transform into blisters later on. The itch remains continuous, which is why many people end up bursting the blisters also. However, the blister fluid is contaminant free and is a production of the body, hence, it does not act as a source of the spread of the poison. Some people complain of the disease involving more parts of the body with time. This is actually due to some parts of the skin responding later than others. In reality, the whole area involved, received the poison, however, some responded quicker than others.
The problematic thing is that the person actually affected by poison ivy may still have the poison on him. As he ponders through the house, he may transfer it to door knobs, walls, the floor, sheets and other areas where it could harm other members of the family or himself. Hence, it is best to clean the house and all areas where the patient has been with a bleach for the sake of the patient and others as well. That is one part of the disease. On the more severe note, if a person accidentally inhales fumes from the burning of this plant or eats it, these sane blisters appear on the lining of the lungs and on the gastrointestinal tract lining, where they can prove fatal. Also, as the poison from the plant remains latent for many years, handling dead plants should also be done with caution. Who knows where the poison ivy lies to lash out and cause trouble.
Similar looking plants
Now that you know what poison ivy looks like and what it does, you may think yourself safe. Don’t come under this false sense of security because to muddle things further, there are many plants that look just like poison ivy. Now, how in the world are you going to tell them apart? Worry not, because we will help you through this part as well. Here we describe the most closely resembling plants that may send you off track with their distinguishing details so that you don’t go off worrying for a small harmless shrub.
- Western poison oak, although a poisonous plant itself famous by the disease poison oak rash, this plant has somewhat differently shaped leaves. They do come off with as singular clusters from the main stem, but each leaf resembles an oak leaf more than the poison ivy. Also, it is more common in the western USA and Canada, instead of the eastern US and Asia.
- Virginia Creeper, this plant has vines that very closely resemble those of poison ivy. However, here again, the leaves give the plant away. Although, there are three leaflets, they are more wrinkled and jagged at the edges as compared to the smooth, shiny and fewer zigzag edges of the ivy.
- Virgin’s bower, this plant bears resemblance to poison ivy because of its vines as well. The differentiating point here, are the needles or thorns on the plant. One more thing is its blossoms which are fragrant and white as compared to inconspicuous clusters of poison ivy.
- Box elder, these plants bear a striking similarity to poison ivy in their youth, which is why they can be mistaken for the plant. Their leaves are very similar but it’s the symmetry that sets it apart. Box elder has up to seven leaflets growing from each cluster, which is inconsistent with the popular three leaflets of poison ivy.
- Poison sumac, although a poisonous plant itself, poisonous sumac is differentiated from poison ivy on the basis of its symmetry as well. The plant never has the 3 standard leaflets, instead, it usually supports a cluster of 7-15 leaves.
- Fragrant sumac, on the other hand, the fragrant sumac has only 3 leaflets and is very similar to poison ivy. To differentiate the two, one has to look very carefully to spot the difference. Actually, the middle leaflet has the dissimilarity. Poison ivy has it’s on a long stalk whereas fragrant sumac has no obvious stalk to support its center leaflet.
- Blackberries and raspberries, the vines of this plant are also similar to poison ivy which gives rise to the confusion. However, the good thing with these fruits is their thorns which help you differentiate the fruity treat from poisonous trouble. This may as well be the one time you thank God for the thorns on these berries. In addition to this, their leaves are also much more jagged than poison ivy and the vines themselves don’t really attach to the tree unlike those of poison ivy which cling on with quite a grip.
- Riverbank grape, first off, the vines of this plant are a purplish color that should give it away. However, for more certainty, riverbank does not have any Arial roots visible, whereas poison ivy is covered to the extent that the roots make it furry.
- Hoptree, this plant can cause quite some confusion because it looks very similar to poison ivy, but the size of the plant is not consistent with that of ivy. These plants grow taller and unless it’s a very young plant, you can easily tell the two apart.
Treatment of poison ivy rash
The best poison ivy treatment is avoidance. You should avoid going to places that carry a risk of poison ivy. Stay out of forests or overgrown backyards, don’t hang your hands on every wall, especially those that have foliage and don’t let your pets to astray in the greenery. These are some ways you can avoid having the disease altogether. For the unfortunate times that you do come in contact with the plant, there are many different opinions on the matter. To begin with the poison ivy treatment, it is suggested that you wash the contaminated area with plenty of soap and water. The addition of rubbing alcohol may help remove the toxin faster. However, the use of hot water is absolutely contraindicated as the warmth may cause your pores to open, hence admitting the toxin to make the reaction faster.
If you do get a rash, however, calamine lotion may save the day. If this doesn’t work, you can always opt for steroid ointments that help control the havoc in your body by bringing down the reaction. If the rash is very severe, the steroids can also be given orally for a better overall coverage, in an attempt to save the life of a person. Furthermore, you can also use aluminum acetate, which is an astringent and helps relieve many symptoms of discomfort.
Aided with the above information, you can now say that you know about poison ivy to a very good extent. Not only can you spot the plant from afar now, but you can also advise others on how to get rid of poison ivy and treat those that have been unfortunate enough to get its rash. The good part is, now you can fortify your defenses against this trouble maker. Many people say not to fret as the disease is easy to handle, but trust us, repeated exposures can increase its severity to the extent that it may involve a large portion of your body. So, as always, prevention is a much better option than cure. Now that you know how to identify the plant and where to look for it, staying away from danger can be much easier. We have done our part in clarifying the role of poison ivy in your environment, protecting yourself against it, is now your job.