What is Poison Ivy?
Poison ivy is a form of contact dermatitis caused by exposure to the poison ivy plant. Poison ivy is a common plant native to the continent of North America. It is specifically a form of allergic contact dermatitis caused by an oil released by the plant itself, rather than an irritant contact reaction. Poison ivy exposure is very common, and very few individuals do not know someone that has suffered from it at some point or other.
The poison ivy plant is not real ivy. It is named for its aesthetics, and resembles ivy, but is of an entirely different genus and order. Their visual similarities are great in theory, but the two are easily distinguished when compared to one another. However, to the untrained observer, there is little that distinguishes poison ivy as irritating or poison at all. This innocuous nature is a large part of why poison ivy-caused dermatitis is so very common, particularly in the summer months when more individuals are out in the wild.
Who gets Poison Ivy?
Everyone is born equally vulnerable to poison ivy. The vast majority of individuals will respond immediately with itching and severe inflammation. However, a certain fraction of the population—not less than a tenth, but not more than a third—does not respond with this reaction, which can sometimes make it difficult to identify. That said, repeated exposure to poison ivy and the urushiol oil that makes poison ivy poisonous is all but guaranteed to increase sensitivity until a reaction is provoked. Repeated exposure results in stronger reactions. Individuals that have been exposed to urushiol in the past are thus more vulnerable to poison ivy.
What causes Poison Ivy?
Poison ivy is caused by urushiol oil. Urushiol oil is produced by the poison ivy plant as a defense mechanism, and the poison binds to the skin immediately and indelibly upon contact. This provokes an immune response as the immune system responds to what it perceives as a severe pathogenic intrusion—in this case, the poison-tainted cells. Because the cells are still a component of the body, this means that the immune system is attacking the body itself. This produces the itching, inflammation, rash and blistering associated with poison ivy; urushiol oil itself does not cause these irritations.
What does Poison Ivy cause?
Poison ivy causes extensive irritation and inflammation of the skin, along with blistering. Following poison ivy exposure, the body undergoes an immune response. The toxins included in urushiol oil bind immediately to the skin cells themselves at varying depths, and the immune system immediately seizes upon these cells. The strength of the immune response varies depending upon a number of factors. The stronger the immune system, the stronger the response. As the response to urushiol oil is an allergic one, this can be quite insidious: the immune system bolsters itself against urushiol for future invasions, and thus responds much more powerfully upon subsequent exposure.
Poison ivy carries the look of a spreading rash when the symptoms begin to present themselves, but this is actually an illusion. Poison ivy cannot spread. Once urushiol oil makes contact with the skin, the damage is done, and symptoms are going to begin presenting themselves. However, the degree to which urushiol oil has penetrated the skin and the severity of exposure modifies how long it takes the immune system to respond. This disparity means that some areas are affected more strongly than others. The varying rate of symptom presentation causes the illusion of a spreading rash.
Fluid-filled blisters and welts are likely to form in the affected patches of skin. This fluid is frequently mistaken for some sort of poison related to the plant itself, but is simply pus produced by the immune system for the purpose of isolating and fighting off what it perceives as a dangerous invader. Unfortunately for those affected, this includes the affected skin cells.
Poison ivy does not spread from person to person, but it can cause intense swelling, itching and pain for a significant period of time and is frequently mistaken for a more contagious rash or an allergic reaction. The misconceptions surrounding poison ivy mean that it can produce certain social complications as well, however erroneous these might be.
How serious is Poison Ivy?
Despite the severe degree of irritation that poison ivy exposure and urushiol oil reaction can cause, poison ivy is not in and of itself a serious condition when it only affects the skin. Poison ivy does not spread and is not contagious. The greatest risk of long-term damage comes from the resulting blistering. The blisters may scar if broken, and these potentially-open blisters leave open the possibility of secondary infections, which are capable of significantly more damage than poison ivy itself.
The greatest risk of poison ivy infection does not stem from its affect on the skin, however, but rather from its affect on the lungs. The urushiol oil responsible for poison ivy’s symptoms can assault the lungs as easily as it can assault the skin, and produce much more devastating effects. Individuals with asthma or other conditions that could be exacerbated by irritation to the lungs are at even greater risk, but the presence of urushiol oil in the lungs and the subsequent immune response can cause extensive damage far in excess of what poison ivy can do to the skin.
What does Poison Ivy treatment look like?
Treatment for poison ivy revolves first around prevention. Poison ivy infection is not a serious medical emergency under most circumstances, but it is a nuisance that individuals are best served by avoiding entirely. The first step in avoiding poison ivy exposure is being able to identify what poison ivy looks like. Poison ivy bears a passing resemblance to other ivy plants, but it is best for individuals looking for a day of outdoor adventure to first familiarize themselves with poison ivy from photographs. Because poison ivy bears a strong resemblance to other plants, it is best to use visual rather than textual identification for research.
Avoiding skin contact is the safest way to evade the influence of poison ivy on the skin. This can be easily accomplished by slim-fitting pant legs, socks and shoes and the like being worn in areas where exposure to poison ivy is a risk. This may seem to go without saying, but it is not uncommon for individuals to simply not think of what they are wearing and how that might affect their exposure to various plants, as most times brushing up against a plant won’t cause a horrible rash.
When avoidance has already failed, there are few options remaining. The first course of action is to clean the area thoroughly with soap and water. This frequently does very little to actually liberate any of the urushiol oil, but it can help alleviate any other external irritants. Following this, keeping the area generally cooler with the use of cool compresses can help reduce the inflammation resulting from the scaling immune response. In addition to cold compresses, some substances can provide some relief from the itching, if not accelerate the healing of the symptoms of urushiol oil exposure. Calamine lotion is among the best-known of these and is quite effective.
Not so much an element of treatment as precaution is the avoidance of future exposure. Urushiol oil is prevalent in several other plants as well, including poison oak and poison sumac. Urushiol oil exposure’s effect is cumulative as the immune system builds up a proper resistance to deploy, which means that exposure to any plant that contains urushiol oil will be worse than the last exposure. Avoiding subsequent exposure is thus a critical exercise for those that cannot risk the incapacitation that severe urushiol rashes can cause as they grow worse in their inflammation and irritation.
Treatment for more extreme cases of poison ivy may require more heavy-duty medicines generally reserved for more severe ailments. Severe allergic reactions can be quite problematic, and this can require the intervention of a medical professional with steroids or other immunosuppressants if the symptoms should grow too severe.
How do I know if I have Poison Ivy?
Poison ivy can be identified easily by its effects on the skin as being related to plant exposure. The symptoms are distinct, and one can easily tell by the blisters and welts that form along with the inflammation that poison ivy exposure and an urushiol reaction has occurred. More severe cases of poison ivy can be identified by a trained medical professional, who can likewise prescribe treatment as may be necessary.