If you have never experienced the itchy, blistery rash associated with poison ivy, oak or sumac, you are among the fortunate few. These plants, which are as likely to invade a construction site as they are a field, forest or garden, contain a sticky, oily sap called urushiol. According to the American Skin Association, most people (85 percent) will develop allergic contact dermatitis when exposed to urushiol and every year, at least 50 million Americans do. Allergic contact dermatitis can lead to lost work days which can slow down outdoor construction projects.
People who have sensitivity to urushiol and who are exposed to poison ivy, oak or sumac can develop allergic contact dermatitis by:
- Directly touching the plants’ leaves, stem, roots or berries. (You can also be exposed to urushiol when your dog brushes up against these plants and then rubs against you.)
- Touching contaminated objects including work boots, shovels and wheelbarrows. If the object isn’t cleaned, the urushiol on it can still cause a skin reaction up to five years later.
- Burning poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. Smoke from burning these plants releases urushiol into the air. When inhaled, it can cause extreme swelling in the throat, nasal passages and lungs. It can also get into the ears and eyes. Seek medical attention immediately if you have been exposed to this smoke.
“Laborers working in wooded areas or areas that contain dense foliage are at increased risk for exposure to poison ivy, oak or sumac and should take precautions,” says LIUNA General Secretary Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “This includes knowing what these plants look like and how to treat the allergic reactions they can cause.”
- Grows throughout the United States with the exception of Alaska, Hawaii and parts of the West Coast; grows throughout Canada with the exception of Newfoundland, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon.
- Grows as a vine or small shrub trailing along the ground or climbing on low plants, trees and poles.
- Produces shiny leaves in clusters of three that can have smooth or toothed edges. Leaves change colors throughout the seasons and can be green, yellow, orange or red.
- May produce greenish-white flowers and whitish-yellow berries.
- Grows as a low shrub in the eastern and southern U.S. and in tall clumps or long vines on the Pacific Coast.
- Produces scalloped leaves in clusters of three that resemble the leaves of an oak tree. Leaves change colors throughout the seasons and can be bronze, bright green, yellow-green or reddish.
- May produce berries that are greenish-white or tan in color.
- Grows as a tall shrub or a small tree in very wet or flooded soils, usually in swamps and peat bogs, in the eastern U.S. and as far west as Idaho and as far north as Canada.
- Produces leaves in clusters of seven to 13, the veins of which are red. Leaves change colors throughout the seasons.
- May produce white or gray berries that hang in clusters.
When working in areas where poison ivy, oak or sumac is likely to be growing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends:
- Wearing long sleeves, long pants, boots and gloves.
- Applying barrier skin creams, such as a lotion containing bentoquatum, before contact.
- Barrier creams should be washed off and reapplied twice a day.
- Cleaning tools with rubbing alcohol (isopropanol or isopropyl alcohol) or soap and water.
- Wearing disposable gloves when cleaning.
Is the Rash Contagious?
Unless you touch the unwashed clothing someone was wearing when they were exposed or borrow a tool that hasn’t been cleaned, you cannot “catch” poison ivy, oak or sumac from another person.
Scratching the rash will not make it spread. However, it can cause an infection, so don’t scratch.
Treating and preventing poison ivy, oak and sumac:
- Upon exposure, if possible, immediately rinse your skin with lukewarm, soapy water. (Do not use a soap that contains lanolin or other moisturizing oils, as this type of soap will spread the urushiol to other parts of your body.)
- Wash contaminated clothing separately from other laundry. (If you have to wash your pet, wear disposable gloves and use lukewarm, soapy water.)
- Take short, lukewarm baths to ease the itch. Use a colloidal oatmeal preparation, which you can buy at your drugstore or add one cup of baking soda to the water.
- Apply calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream to the rash.
- Apply cool compresses to itchy skin.
- Consider taking antihistamine pills. Do not apply an antihistamine directly to skin as this can aggravate the rash and cause more itching.
- See a dermatologist if your rash is not improving after seven to 10 days or if you think it is infected.
“Poison ivy, oak and sumac are year round menaces,” says Sabitoni, “but with awareness, you can minimize your risk for exposure and, should you get the rash, minimize its effect on your life.”
[Janet Lubman Rathner]