Skin-irritating plants bane of Southern life

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 26, 2004

Joy Brabston stands in her garden with poison ivy in her right hand and a lookalike plant, Virginia creeper, in her left. (Meredith SpencerThe Vicksburg Post)

[7/25/04]Joy Brabston was in her 50s before she had a reaction to poison ivy.

But when she got it, it came with a vengeance.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

“It was bad enough that I had to go to the emergency room,” she said.

Brabston, now 70, is an avid gardener who owns Linden Plantation Gardens and Bed and Breakfast with her husband Bryan. She becomes a victim of the burning outbreak three to four times a year. “It’s really bad this year,” she said of poison ivy in Warren County.

The rash is the result of an allergic reaction to an oil called urushiol, said Vicksburg dermatologist Dr. Robert Clingan. It is a colorless or pale yellow oil that escapes from any cut or crushed part of the plant, including stems, roots and leaves of the plants that proliferate in the woods and the lawns of the South.

Dermatology experts say the oil can penetrate within minutes of touching skin. A rash can appear in 12 hours or it may take several days. Then it can take 10 days or more to heal.

Clingan said he had never heard of any fatality related to the allergy, but many people are affected.

About 85 percent of all people will develop an allergy to urushiol, experts say. Not every first encounter will produce a reaction in all people. The oil accumulates in the skin through repeated contact, Clingan said.

District 2 Supervisor Michael Mayfield said he and his wife didn’t know they were allergic until a few years ago. Mayfield said his wife, who does a lot of yard work, suffers the most.

“It literally eats her alive,” Mayfield said.

There’s a myth that black people aren’t allergic to the plant, he said.

“I’ve never known many blacks to be allergic to it,” Mayfield said. “I was never allergic to it; then all of sudden, there it is.”

The first reaction is usually the mildest. Reactions grow steadily worse with repeated contact, Clingan said.

“We assume it’s a quantitative thing you got to get enough of the allergen into your system at the right time for your body to make the antibodies and become allergic,” Clingan said.

Ten to 50 million Americans develop a rash after contact with poison ivy, oak or sumac, says the American Academy of Dermatology. All of the plants are present in Warren County, poison ivy being the most prevalent, county agent Terry Rector said.

While the well-known phrase “Leaves of three, leave them be,” is a good rule of thumb when dealing with poison ivy or oak, poison sumac has seven to 13 leaves per branch.

Anything with even trace amounts of urushiol can cause a reaction in a person who is sensitive to the oil. Clingan, who practiced in Hawaii for 20 years, said he has treated patients who handle mangoes.

The fruit has small amount of urushiol on its skin. Clingan stressed it’s OK for people who are highly allergic to urushiol to eat mango; they just shouldn’t peel it.

“You have to be sensitized to poison ivy, not the mango, because (urushiol on mango peel) is not strong enough allergen,” Clingan said.

Contact with urushiol can happen in three ways:

Direct contact: skin-to-oil contact

Indirect contact: touching something that has urushiol on it. The oil can stick to clothing, animal fur and sports equipment, to name a few things. Clingan said he often sees people who become infected by washing the clothing of someone who has gone hunting.

Airborne urushiol particles: The smoke of burned plants with urushiol can cause an allergic reaction.

AAD advises that people who think they’ve had contact with urushiol follow three steps:

Wash all exposed area with water. The reaction may be avoided if washing is done within 5 minutes.

Wash clothing with detergent as well as any equipment that may touch a poisonous plant. Urushiol can stay active for years.

The AAD recommends several treatments for those allergic to urushiol.

To relieve itching, consider taking cool showers and applying over-the-counter drugs such as calamine lotion and Burrow’s solution. Soaking in an oatmeal or baking-soda bath also relieves itching and dry, oozing blisters.

However, to halt a rash, prescription medications are usually necessary, Clingan said. He recommends seeing a dermatologist if a person is having a severe reaction.

The AAD advises that over-the-counter hydrocoritsone creams are not strong enough to halt a poison ivy rash.