Leaves of Three, Let Them Be

OKLAHOMA CITY – Memorial Day weekend is here and more families are returning to the outdoors for recreation while maintaining social distancing. While spending time camping and hiking, it’s important to be mindful of potentially harmful plants such as poison ivy. 

Poison ivy often grows low to the ground like a weed but can also can grow as a vine, climbing up trees or fences. Additionally, it can grow as a shrub. One thing all forms have in common is stems with three leaves. The main symptom of poison ivy is a skin rash that can appear right away or up to one to two days after contact. 

“Redness, swelling and small itchy blisters may form and become painful. There is a strong temptation to scratch the itch, but scratching can break open the blisters and lead to infection,” said Scott Schaeffer, RPh, DABAT, managing director of the Oklahoma Center for Poison and Drug Information.

Poison ivy contains a sticky oil called urushiol that causes an allergic reaction in many people. The oil is easily transferred by touching or brushing against the plant; it can then be transferred to other parts of the body. Other ways people can come in contact with the oil include using contaminated lawn and garden tools, touching pets that have the oil on their fur, or being exposed to the smoke generated when poison ivy is burned in a brush pile or campfire.

One of the primary ways to limit the spread of poison ivy is to thoroughly wash exposed skin with plenty of soap and water. Contaminated clothing and garden tools should also be cleaned, as should anything else to which the oil might have been transferred. Relief from itching can sometimes be obtained by using over the counter products such as antihistamines or hydrocortisone cream; follow package directions and consult your pharmacist or pediatrician before using these products for children. Serious cases of poison ivy or symptoms of infection should be evaluated by a physician. 

A well-known saying to remember is “Leaves of three, let them be.” Careful attention to your surroundings and quick clean-up at the first sign of poison ivy exposure will help make your outdoor activities more enjoyable and less likely to result in an itchy ending.

Pharmacists and registered nurses at the poison center are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call the Poison Help-line at (800) 222-1222. Do not e-mail the poison center or a member of the poison center staff, as poisoning emergencies are not handled through e-mail. The Oklahoma Center for Poison and Drug Information is a program of the University of Oklahoma College of Pharmacy at the OU Health Sciences Center. For more information, please visit www.oklahomapoison.org.