Late At Night While You're Sleeping
Poison Ivy Come Creeping All Around

By Don Jordan

July 8, 2013


"You're gonna need an ocean
Of calamine lotion
You'll be scratching like a hound
The minute you start to mess around."
--Poison Ivy, The Coasters, 1959

The rock and roll classic means a lot more to you if you have had an encounter with poison ivy. Scratching the diabolical itching contact with poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac brings can make life miserable if you are among the 90 percent of all humans allergic to the active ingredient.

That active ingredient is urushiol oil, a startlingly potent and long-lasting compound produced by this family of plants. The existence of this oil in poison ivy has been known for a long time, and it is said that Japanese used an urushiol oil-based clear coat to cover gold leaf on ancient temples. Using the oil accomplished two things: because of its persistent nature, the coating remains for up to five years, and, since the oil remains active, anyone trying to rip off the gold leaf would suffer infection from the contact.

In reseaching this column, I was amazed to find a veritable treasure trove of factoid tidbits about poison ivy that everyone ought to know. Here are some choice ones:

*The word urushiol comes from a Japanese word for lacquer, urushi, and Captain John Smith is said to have given poison ivy its name in 1609. And, samples of urushiol centuries old have stimulated the characteristic poison ivy rash in some people.

*"Leaflets three, let it be," is the familiar poetic memory device that helps us remember what poison ivy looks like. This is true for poison ivy and poison oak. Poison sumac has anywhere from seven to 13 leaves per set. We have all three here in Indiana, although poison ivy appears to be far and away the most abundant. Poison oak and poison sumac are not necessarily associated with either oak or sumac trees. See photos and drawings of the plants at

*The rash caused by the plant is not contagious. Breaking the blisters during scratching does not spread the rash. What makes it appear to be contagious or spreading is the continued presence of urushiol on your skin or your girlfriend's.

*The only effective cure is to scrub off all the urushiol oil and then ride out the discomfort and itching as the blisters eventually disappear. After scrubbing, you can cover the area with something that reduces itching, i.e., calamine lotion. New and very expensive poison ivy "kits" at the drug store provide a rough scrubber and potent soap for washing and fluid that smells and acts like clear fingernail polish to help stop itching.

*Nobody is immune from the allergic reaction, at least forever. If you seem to be immune, you should understand that sensitivity results after continued contact. Almost everyone's skin becomes sensitive over time. People with the strongest and most reactive immune systems are more sensitive to urushiol oil than people with weak immune systems. For example, people with AIDS or other immune system disorders are much less sensitive to poison ivy.

According to the Poison Ivy, Oak & Sumac Information Center, the persistent nature of urushiol on skin is due to a unique ability of this oil. In three to 30 minutes after contacting your skin, urushiol oil penetrates your skin and bonds will cells beneath that outer layer of skin. Once this bonding takes place practically impossible to get rid of it.

Some commercial products combine soap and a light solvent like mineral spirits or witch hazel to help scrub these bonded cells. You will have to do it repeatedly. The reason these store-bought products include a pot-scrubber is to abrade your skin deep enough to remove these oil-bonded cells.

Don't forget to wash any clothing in hot water with detergent to remove any oil that may be on said clothing, or you will get fresh applications of urushiol every time you wear this clothing.

Scrub with a liquid soap/light solvent mixture every day, two or three times a day until the rash is gone. You can use anything from clear nail polish to calamine to cortisone cream to help stop the itching.

Learn the appearance of these plants and avoid them for a happy summer. Keep your skin covered with long sleeves and pants, and if you are especially senstitive, gloves.

Finally, don't forget that burning poison ivy sends the oil airborne. You can get the worst cases of poison ivy rash if exposed to this smoke. Don't burn poison ivy or at least get far away from it if you do.

originally posted June 19, 2007.

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