Poison Ivy source of many misconceptions

As much as the the beautiful Poison Ivy is a thorn in Batman's side, so is the plant by the same name the bane of humanity. Many a summer's activity have been spoiled by this inconspicuous, yet dastardly foliage.

Poison Ivy is actually a misnomer, Amelia T. Wood Health Center Director Dr. Kent Bullis said. The plant is not poisonous, but a substance in the plant causes an allergic reaction in the form of a nasty rash. The same goes for Poison Oak and Poison Sumac, both close relatives of Poison Ivy.

The rash-causing agent in any of these plants is called urushiol (pronounced oo-roo-shee-ohl).

Only a very small amount, one billionth of a gram, of this substance is required to cause a reaction, according to http://www.poisonivy.aesir.com. Only 1/4 ounce would be needed to cause a reaction in every human on earth.

A rash can develop on the skin anywhere from 2 hours to 21 days from the original exposure to urushiol, Bullis said.

Urishiol causes an allergic contact rash, or dermatitis.

The body's immune system is responsible for the rash, Bullis said. He explained that when a foreign substance, or antigen, is introduced, the body defends itself. Urushiol and many other rash-causing agents are not inherently harmful.

"Under certain circumstances the reaction is out of proportion and actually hurts the body," Bullis said.

Humans are born not being allergic to Poison Ivy, Bullis said. By the age of 60, 70 percent of the population becomes allergic. Over time, the immune system develops a sensitivity to the urushiol, which it responds to, he said.

There are many common myths regarding Poison Ivy.

Contrary to popular belief, a Poison Ivy rash is not contagious. The blisters that occur do not contain urushiol oil. The only way that Poison Ivy can be spread from one person to another is if there is still some urushiol oil on the skin.

Bullis said the oils spread easily on a variety of surfaces.

Another myth is that burning the plants will remove the possibility of being exposed. The oil can become airborne on particles of soot and, if inhaled, can be one of the most dangerous methods of being exposed, Bullis said.

Poison Ivy can grow under most any conditions, but is usually found in moist, shady areas, Bullis said. The reason we don't see the plants growing on street corners and other open areas is because most people will cut down the plants when they see them.

The plant generally grows in clusters of three leaves which typically have serrated edges. The plant is also a brighter green than most other plants that will grow near it, making it stand out.

Different treatments are available for Poison Ivy depending on the severity of the rash, Bullis said. There is no cure, but there are prescription steroid creams which will reduce the inflammation and irritation.

Another solution is a special soap called "Zanfel" specifically formulated to remove the urushiol oil from the skin.

"[Zanfel] gives rapid, dramatic results," Bullis said. He also said that many who are prone to Poison Ivy rashes are not aware of this product.