Signs of summer
The first sign was the feeling of tiny blisters through my silk nightgown on awakening. Now, the rash is hot. It itches constantly. Blisters cover my back from neck to hip. It has come early this summer. I am one of half the population who is allergic to urushiol, the oil found in poison ivy, oak and sumac, members of the cashew family botanically.
My little dog Jackson is an escape artist. When he penetrates the well-fortified boundaries of our yard to chase a squirrel or a herd of deer through the river flats, he chooses a path through poison oak and ivy and brings it home on his thick black fur—an invisible gift to our welcoming arms after the merry chase. It has happened every one of his three summers. This time was the worst. Maybe next time I will remember to welcome him home with a bath of Technu soap using rubber gloves instead of the loving embrace of bare skin.
My husband has it too, whether from Jackson himself, or from careless weed-whacking with his new electric weed whacker. A thick red rash covers the tender inside of his forearms.
The cashew family from whence the dread urushiol oil derives comprises about 70 genera and 850 species of trees and shrubs including mango and gingko biloba. Interesting facts, but when your skin is boiling what you really want to know is how to get rid of the damn stuff.
Urushiol is similar to carbolic acid and extremely irritating to the skin. Some of the plants that contain it are tender-leaved and the oil can be released merely by brushing by a leaf. Even removing your shoes after walking through a mat of ivy can lead to a painful two-week course of blisters and rashes if the oil is not immediately removed by thorough washing.
How to wash is a subject of discourse in the poison ivy oeuvre. Our yard man, John Evans, removes vines of the stuff from our shed every summer. He tells me they used to wash with gasoline to get the oils off when he was young. The oil actually binds to protein in the skin after about 15 minutes so it is imperative to wash soon after exposure. Soon and often. Cold water is recommended after contact. Any soap can be used, but soap can also disperse the oil and spread it. Technu wash seems to be helpful. I keep a bottle of it in every bathroom during the summer and wash my hands after being outside. But then, I’m not the poster child for freedom from poison ivy rash.
My rash is now so intense that only a 10-day course of oral Prednisone accompanied by a topical prescription-strength corticosteroid cream is giving me relief. That, and several hot showers a day. Yes, hot water takes the sting away. But only after provoking an intense, almost pleasurable itch response. Here’s how it works. Heat stimulates histamines. Histamines provoke itch. When you subject your itchy skin to intense heat, histamines are released and then the body takes about six hours to build up more histamines. Hence, an itch-free couple of hours.
You may be one of the lucky few who think they are immune to poison ivy. Don’t be so sure. An allergy to the oil can develop at any time in your life, and only about 10% of people can count on being immune at any time.
Finally, the old yarn “Leaves of three, let them be” only applies to poison ivy. Poison oak can have three or five. Poison sumac has seven to 13 leaves on a branch. Be careful out there.