Saturday, February 9, 2013

How to avoid/treat for poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac

Poison oak (left), poison sumac (center),and poison ivy (right).
Often the greatest danger in the wilds isn’t our own clumsiness or foolhardiness but various plants we encounter.

The good news is that we mostly have to force the encounter with flora. Touching the leaves of poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac in particular results in an itchy, painful rash. In the case of poison oak, the irritated skin can blister. Each plant’s sticky resin, which causes the reaction, clings to clothing and hair, so though your children may not have “touched” a leaf, once their hand runs against the resin on shirt or jeans, they’ll be probably get the rash.

To avoid touching these plants, you’ll need to be able to identify each one. Remember the “Leaves of three, let it be” rule for poison ivy and oak. Besides groups of three leaflets, poison ivy and oak have shiny green leaves that are red in spring and fall. Poison sumac’s leaves are not toothed as are non-poisonous sumac, and in autumn their leaves turn scarlet. Be forewarned that even after leaves fall off, poison oak’s stems can carry some of the itchy resin.

If children stay on the trail and walk down its middle rather than the edges, they are unlikely to come into contact with this trio of irritating plants. That probably is the best preventative. “Poison ivy barrier creams also can be helpful, but I generally don’t like my children to wear them,” says David A., of Minneapolis. “They only temporarily block the resin, and sometimes kids think they’re safe for a long time and so don’t bother to watch for poison ivy or even tell me that they touched it.”

To treat poison ivy/oak/sumac, wash the part of the body that has touched the plant with poison ivy soap and cold water. This will erode the oily resin, so it’ll be easier to rinse off. If you don’t have any of this special soap, plain soap sometimes will work if used within a half-hour of touching the plant. Apply a poison ivy cream and get medical attention immediately. Wearing gloves, remove any clothing (including shoes) that has touched the plants, washing them and the worn gloves right away.

Read more about day hiking with children in my Hikes with Tykes guidebooks.