Close Encounters with Poison Ivy and Nettles
Unless you're planning on wearing a full-body Kevlar® leotard every time you walk out of your house, there is a substantial liklihood that you will encounter some sort of plant or animal nastiness sometime during the summer. There are bugs, snakes and plants with personal vendetas against you. Face it, It's a jungle out there.
The biggest plant pest that you are likely to encounter is the ubiquitous Poison Ivy, Rhus radicans and it's close relative, Poison Oak. It grows just about everywhere and so far, it looks like this summer is going to produce an especially excellent crop. P.I. is extremely variable in its forms, growing as a vine, a ground cover, or upright. Old vines get very hairy looking. The old addage is "Leaves of three, leave it be", and refers to the 3 glossy or dull green leaflets, 2 to 4 inches long. The leaves are somewhat variable in shape. Poison Oak has more irregular leaves. It produces whitish flowers from August to November that dry and remain for a long time. In the fall, the leaves take on bright colors --yellow and then turning red. An oil that the plant produces is responsible for varying degrees of irritation from skin inflammation to blistering. You don't even have to touch it. You can get it from smoke if it is being burned. It is said that even 100 year old leaves can cause irritation.
Peoples' bodies respond differently to exposure to Poison Ivy. You may get into it once and not experience any effects, only to be lulled by that false sense of security, get into it later and become such a blistered and scarred, itchy, freak that you won't want to leave the house. Sometimes people who have been seemingly immune to the exposure will have a bout that will make up for all of the times when they were in it before and didn't get it.
Absolutely the best precaution and defense is recognizing it and avoiding it. Many times though, the recognition occurs just about the time that you're in it. There are about a gazillion things that people will tell you to do for Poison Ivy. I've lived vicariously through my wife, Danielle's, episodes with it and had it myself as well. Danielle develops strong allergic reactions to it and has been through the whole gamut of remedies from Calamine to Cortizone injections. I'll repeat this, probably several times, the best precaution and defense is recognizing it and avoiding it.
OK, I'll get to the point here. After you recognize that you've been in it, the first reaction seems to be to touch it or scratch it. WRONG. Leave it alone. Don't touch the exposed area at all, no matter how badly it drives you crazy, until you can wash it. Many times in the summer when you're outside in the vicinity of Poison Ivy, you will have developed a sheen of sweat on your body. The oil can be transferred to other parts of your body if you rub it and then rub another part. It depends somewhat on your individual tolerance, but some folks have reported that they got it from their pets who had been in it. Also, when you are warm and sweaty, your pores are open and contact will help the oil work its way into your skin. Wash your hands first, then wash the area that has been exposed, then wash your hands again, then go home and take a shower. Plain water works well. Cold water seems to work a little better, because it closes your pores fast. Soapy water or alcohol also work.
Last summer I was bush-whacking through the woods, on a friends property while wearing short pants and no socks. We hadn't gone very far when I noticed that our chosen route was through a big patch of Poison Ivy. I tried to step carefully, but it was inevitable that I brushed up against it. Later, we got to a trail that was overgrown with Stinging Nettles on either side. At that point I was in a high degree of discomfort and really just wanted to scratch and rub my legs. Though it took a severe bit of self-discipline, teeth-gritting and transcendental meditation, I didn't touch my legs at all. As soon as I could, I washed the area with cold water and I never got a rash at all.
In the southern Appalachians and in much of the eastern U.S., there is a plant remedy that works very well. Jewel Weed comes in two varieties, with a yellow flower (Impatiens pallida) or with an orange flower (Impatiens capensis). The great thing about Jewel Weed is that it often grows right next to Poison Ivy and is fairly common along roadsides. This plant is a well-known folk remedy for P.I. and has no reported side-effects. The juice of the Jewel Weed can be extracted from the stems or leaves, preferably before flowering, but it seems to work at any time. If you are out in the woods and realize that you have exposed yourself to Poison Ivy, and are able to find Jewel Weed, you are in luck. Crush the stems of Jewel Weed to extract the juice and apply it to the area affected by The P.I. or, apply a poultice of the crushed leaves to the area. The juice is somewhat sticky and will stay where you put it pretty well. Some folks have said that tea made from Jewel Weed works as a preventative. To keep a reserve supply on hand, the best idea seems to be to save the juice as ice cubes to rub on the infected area. Shred leaves and roots and place in boiling water for 15 minutes to half an hour, then freeze the liquid in ice cube trays. Jewel Weed relieves the itching, stops the spread and helps to heal the Poison Ivy rash. We have found Jewel Weed to be the best remedy of all, even better than prescription products.
Homeopaths use micro-doses of Poison Ivy to combat the infection, fighting fire with fire. A series of preventative injections can be prescribed by a doctor for P.I., but not many people seem to think they're going to get it before they do. Calamine Lotion, Caladryl and Benadryl can be applied topically. Many of the topical agents say not to cover the area after the lotion is applied, but loose bandages that are changed often have worked for me. After you have the rash, the hardest part is not scratching it. Bandages keep you from digging at it. Baking Soda compresses (mix Baking Soda w/ a little water to make a paste) seem to help dry up the blisters and relieve the itching also. Only trouble is that it flakes off as it dries. Some of the prescribed cures that my wife has tried have actually seemed to make the rash worse. Steroids and Cortizone created unpleasant side effects like sleeplessness and irritability. Did I mention that the best defense is recogniton and avoidance?
Yet another unpleasant plant that you may enounter out on the trail is Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica). The long range effects of Nettles aren't nearly as pronounced as Poison Ivy, but it can cause pretty intense short-term annoyance. Nettles have little prickly hairs that stick in your skin and sting and itch like crazy. Again, don't touch the exposed area. You won't have any trouble recognizing when you have just walked through Nettles. As soon as you can find water, wash the exposed area and the discomfort should vanish almost immediately.
Aside from the stinging factor, the Nettle is a very useful plant with uses as food and many medicinal applications. Its constituents include Formic acid, histamines, acetylcholine, glocoquinones, minerals including iron, silica, potassium, manganese and sulphur and vitamins A & C.
Nettles can grow just about anywhere. The fresh green leaves may be cooked and eaten like spinach, or made into soup or tea. (The sting is not present in the cooked or dried plant form.) In spring, a tea made from the leaves is a powerful tonic that provides many important vitamins and minerals. The vitamin C content works to help the iron be absorbed by the body. There are many folk and homeopathic medicinal uses for nettles.
So far, I haven't found any beneficial uses for Poison Ivy. I hope it won't keep you from going outside though. Good Luck.
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