A long ago hunt for ruffed grouse on an early fall day in North Dakota hangs in my memory. I don’t recall whether I brought home any grouse. I do remember, however, developing a rash on my left arm a few days later. Somehow I brushed up with some poison ivy.
The rash healed up after about a week, and while I haven’t had any more of those unpleasant encounters I’d rather not have another. Accordingly, I perked up when Gary Burris of Tec Laboratories, of Albany, Oregon, made a presentation on poison ivy and oak at the annual conference of the Northwest Outdoor Writers Association, held a couple weeks ago at Seeley Lake, Montana.
The nasty ingredient that makes life miserable for people who encounter poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac is urushiol, a resin-type oil contained in the leaves and stems of these plants. It’s powerful stuff. “The amount of urushiol on the tip of a needle is enough to give 100 people a rash,” Burris said. Looking at it another way, urushiol would have to be diluted in olive oil at 60,000 to one before it wouldn’t cause problems.
Urushiol also doesn’t break down with age. Burris told of a piece of poison ivy wood that had been in a museum for 100 years. After that period, someone moved it and a few days later came down with a rash. Also, burning can release urushiol in smoke, and if inhaled can cause major problems.
The best remedy for poison ivy and poison oak problems is to avoid it. The old saying, “groups of three: leave it be,” is still the rule of thumb when it comes to these toxic plants. According to the USDA-NRCS website, both poison ivy and poison oak are present in Montana, from one end of the state to the other, though not in all counties. It’s not present in Silver Bow County, but is found in Madison, Gallatin and Park Counties in southwest Montana. I haven’t knowingly seen any, though I’ve heard from others about poison oak along the lower Madison River in the Beartrap Canyon area. Poison sumac is not found in Montana.
As to what to do if exposed to poison ivy and poison oak, the first thing to do is get it off, and it takes something that can break down the resins in urushiol. A pumice-based soap, such as Lava, is effective, as is Dawn dishwashing detergent.
Tec Laboratories makes a product, Tecnu, which the company’s founder, Dr. Robert Smith, developed in the 1960s to wash off atomic dust particles, back in that backyard bomb shelter era. The Cold War never turned hot, but after the Smith family moved to Oregon their children all became exposed to poison oak. In a fit of anger, Mrs. Smith went out and pulled up, with her bare hands, all the poison oak on their property. Her work complete she decided she’d better wash up and spotted a container of fallout scrub and washed with that—and avoided the nasty rash altogether.
That was the beginning of Tec Laboratory’s line of poison ivy and poison oak remedies.
Other remedies on the market include Zanfel and Terrafil.
Burris further recommended that besides washing skin surfaces, clothing should be washed with Tide laundry detergent. Tools and gear should be wiped down with a Tecnu-saturated cloth. Pets, such as dogs, normally don’t react to poison ivy, though an animal exposed to urushiol can certainly pass that nasty resin on to humans. Burris also mentioned that his company’s product is also effective for removing skunk spray, as well as creosote and tar.
Once a poison ivy rash develops things get more complicated. It’s important to avoid scratching as that can spread the urushiol to other parts of the body. Caladryl and hydrocortisone-based ointments can relieve the itching, and, yes, his company makes those, as well.
Some people, roughly one in 100, don’t react to poison ivy and poison oak. On the other hand, that immunity isn’t necessarily permanent. If you spot these nasty plants, avoid touching them and you’ll avoid a lot of potential misery.