When spring in full swing, poison ivy crops up as a point of concern with riders. While it is common in all the lower 48 states, some places have more of it than others—and Saw Wee Kee has plenty. Even though the plant can cause a rash most any time of the year (yes, even in winter), spring and summer are the most likely times that riders and trail workers will deal with it.
So I want to cover how to ID it and what to do if you get it. What does it look like?
You should know the standing rule: leaves of three, leave it be. In the pictures above, you'll notice that the leaves take on varying shapes but commonly have noticeable bumps along the edges. These might be asymmetrical, and more or less pronounced between leaves. There will be a main vein running down the center of the leaf, with secondary veins running out from this one. It is a low ground cover plant that spreads thru shared roots.
When it finds a vertical surface like a tree, the plant will send vines up the surface. The noticeable characteristic then is that the vine looks hairy from the claw-like roots it puts out to hold onto the surface. Virginia Creeper can be mistaken for a poison ivy plant, but it has five leaves spreading out from one point. The horizontal branches in the lower left photo are from the poison ivy vine. How do you avoid a rash?
The simplest way, in theory, is to never step off a trail or crash during a ride—not that you have full control over that. But even if you could control it you're not in the clear from the rash-causing oil in poison ivy, called urushiol. A poison ivy vine that has grown up a tree can grow into a substantial plant that may stretch into the way of passing trail users. If you were to walk under the plant after a storm, you could have urushiol dripping onto you without realizing it. Likewise, there are other ways to get a rash without falling into it:
• Cutting brush with a powered weed whacker could spray you with the oil (or plant bits that contain the oil).
• Burning brush that includes poison ivy releases the oil into the air. If you breath in this air, you could face a very serious systemic reaction to the oil.
• Touching something that has contacted the oil, such as your boots, can spread it without your knowing. You might pass it to your car's steering wheel or interior door handles, then each time you touch that surface you reinfect yourself.
• Mangos have the oil in the peel as well as the leaves! People living in Hawaii commonly get a rash from the oil thru contact with Mango plants.
• You won't get a rash on your palms, but your palms can still spread it to more susceptible areas.
• Sweating a lot might delay the oil from getting into your skin. It could buy you some time to start a treatment. Conversely, if you wash your skin you remove a barrier that keeps the oil out, which could lead to a worse reaction if you contact the oil soon thereafter.
Now you might say that never doing trail work, or riding where the trails are well trimmed, is the easy way to avoid the rash, but you never know what branch has recently grown into your path, what plants other riders have contacted before you shake their hand, or where you might roll into the plants. The best way to control whether you get a rash, and how severe it is, is to follow some simple but necessary procedures. With these, you can go most anywhere in the woods without a high risk of itchy discomfort.
• When you go into the woods, assume you got exposed to the oil no matter what. It's assuming that you haven't that gives the oil the opportunity to spread around and cause havoc.
• If you're wearing gloves, do not wipe your face with them on! You'll find plenty of people who have gotten the oil on their gloves, only to spread it to their eyebrows, nose, chin, ....
• Compartmentalize your clothing. Remove the clothes, gloves and footwear you wore into the woods and bag them before getting into your car. When you get home put them straight into the wash. Alternatively, soak them in a bucket of water and grease-cutting detergent for a few hours. Then rinse and let dry.
• Clean off any exposed skin within about 20 minutes with either rubbing alcohol, mineral spirits or a detergent/soap that claims to cut grease. You should leave the skin to soak for a few minutes and then wash it off.
• Wash off any tools or items that may have contacted the oil so that you don't get a rash the next time you touch them. Don't forget that while your pets won't get a rash, their fur can transport the oil to your car or home!
• If you plan to be in the woods for a long time, pack some rubbing alcohol and wipes. An emptied cough syrup or cold remedy bottle makes a handy size to store it.
• A product like Ivy Block should prevent the oil from causing a rash, though it suspends the oil and doesn't break it down. It needs to be thoroughly washed off afterwards to eliminate the danger.
• If you do find yourself needing to move a poison ivy plant, don't touch it directly. Use a stick or sandwich the plant between a few safe leaves.
• Do not use regular soap or try to wash it off with hot water. Your typical bar soap will only move the oil around, and the hot water opens up your pores and allows the oil easier access to deeper layers of your skin where the rash occures.What do I do if I still get a rash?
First off, keep in mind that a poison ivy rash is an allergic reaction to the urushiol oil within the plant. You will see a rash start in one to three days. If you feel itching soon after exposure, chances are you contacted something more benign (ragweed or stinging nettles). For most mild cases you can expect it to run a two-week course: a week of discomfort and a week of recovery. In the first week, expect distracting itchiness, redness, blisters (small and maybe numerous in mild cases, large in bad cases), and swelling in more severe cases. If the blisters pop, the sores will weep and need bandaging. For larger blisters, the weeping will last for days. This is followed by a week of healing. The redness will get more pronounced but no new blisters or weeping will occur. Milder itchiness might crop up occasionally but shouldn't be a concern.
The liquid in the blisters poses no danger—it does not contain the oil and is not contagious. If you at least tried to break down the oil with rubbing alcohol, a grease-cutting detergent/soap, or an effective urushiol cleaner like Zanfel* (though it's expensive), Technu or Mean Green Power Hand Scrubber
, then any rash should be very minor. If you caught it too late, or missed a spot, then the reaction will be more dramatic, though not necessarily as bad as some online photos would suggest.
Your main problem will be to stop the itch. This can be done with the urushiol cleaner, an oral or topical steroid like hydrocortizone cream, or with a hair dryer. Some people claim that one treatment with the urushiol cleaner does the job completely, even after the rash has begun. Should the itching return you can retreat as needed. If you try the histamine-blocking hydrocortizone cream, but find that the wait for it to take effect seems painfully long, try using a hair dryer instead. Wave the dryer over the rash for 30-40 seconds, holding it as close to your skin as you can reasonably tolerate. The heat uses up all the histamine in your skin, which is the chemical responsible for triggering the itch reaction. Once the histamine is spent, you will not feel an itch until your body can make more, which can take up to eight blissful hours! Taking a very hot shower may also produce similar results. You can also try wiping the area down with rubbing alcohol regularly during that first week, though this alone may not alleviate the symptoms once the rash has begun.
Small blisters can be popped and left to heal. Larger blisters may break on their own as they grow. You'll have to put a bandage on them and keep changing it. Some treatments like calamine may help dry out the skin, but I wouldn't expect you to dodge the weeping completely. You may also slow the weeping by cooling the skin. Keep washing the area with grease-cutting soap, or wipe it down with rubbing alcohol. If you have a major rash, meaning one that covers a substantial area, or you breathed in smoke from burning poison ivy plants, then it's important for you to see a doctor and get steroid shots. You may want to see a doctor for less severe rashes to ensure you are treating it properly.
As someone who does trailwork regularly, I get a few small rashes each year. Small meaning a few dots, say just beyond my gloves or on my legs. Or I unknowingly pass a vine while riding and get a line of irritation. By following a routine, I minimize the rash so that it is fairly inconsequential. I have only rarely transfered it to my face and I've never passed it to my family. Keep in mind that not all medical professionals will know about such treatments as the Mean Green Power Hand Scrubber, or using a hair dryer. I hope you will try them when the need arises so that you won't needlessly suffer.
*Zanfel came about when a salesman for Mean Green Power Hand Scrubber discovered that the product had a useful side benefit. Therefore, you should be able to get the same results as Zanfel by going online and buying the much cheaper Mean Green Power Hand Scrubber.