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It is easy to understand our love of the outdoors. After a long, cold winter, we want to plant flowers and vegetables; we want to get out to mow lawns, pull weeds and watch birds. After all, we are all connected, participating in the cycles of life, the ebb and flow of Mother Nature. And then there is poison ivy, that lovely but toxic three-leaved plant that seems to invade our little plot of beauty.

It is important, as massage therapists, to be aware of both the causes and treatment of being exposed to poison ivy, as well as poison oak and poison sumac. If a client has it, should they get a massage? If the massage therapist has it should he or she give a massage? Can getting a massage spread, or otherwise affect the rash?

How Does a Person Get Poison Ivy?

There is basically one way to get poison ivy. (This applies to poison oak and poison sumac as well.) It is to come in contact with the plant and ultimately have the plant oils get on the skin. Even if you don’t physically touch the plant with bare skin, it may be that your pet, or some item of clothing brushes by one of the plants, and in turn you touch them – by putting on your gardening boots or petting your dog – and come in contact with the toxic oil.

The toxin responsible for the allergic reaction is urushiol and, while it seems to be most toxic in poison ivy, oak and sumac, it is also found in lesser concentrations in cashew nut shells, mangoes, ginkgo biloba seeds and in its namesake, the Japanese lacquer tree (kiurushi or urushi ki). The resinous oil can remain potent for years under the right conditions, and herbarium specimens have caused contact dermatitis after 100 years of storage.

Once the urushiol comes in contact with human skin, it “locks on” within just a few minutes. It then affixes itself to the underlying tissue, gets into the immune system and triggers a histamine reaction in the body resulting in allergic contact dermatitis.

The urushiol is difficult to remove, and using plain soaps and water can spread the substance rather than remove it. The reaction, the itchy rash, is not immediate. Depending on the person’s sensitivity, the rash may not develop for 24 – 72 hours after exposure. This is when a massage therapist needs to be most aware and alert when questioning a client prior to the massage session.

Unknowingly Spreading Poison Ivy

Because the urushiol is oil soluble, it can bind to other oils. And, a very small amount – just two micrograms – of the urushiol can cause a fairly severe reaction. Combine this with the delay in reaction and you can have a potentially dangerous situation. While the situation might be rare, there could be a case of a client working in a garden the morning of, or even a day or two prior to coming for a massage. Unbeknownst to the client, the oil could still remain on the skin even after taking a shower.

As the massage therapist spreads the oil, the urushiol can easily be disbursed to other areas of the body and result in a very dangerous situation. The same holds true for a massage therapist who may have come in contact with the toxic plants. If you have touched the plant with your hands or forearms and not yet had a reaction, you could spread the oils and transfer them to your client’s skin.

The Best Precaution is Prevention

The best way to avoid the rash caused by poison ivy is to avoid coming in contact with the plant, or anything that has come in contact with it that you might touch. If you do come in contact with it the best thing to do is to wash the area with warm water and a commercially available poison ivy soap. (Burt’s Bees Poison Ivy Soap and Ivarest Poison Ivy Cleansing Foam are two that are easily available.) Many of them contain Jewelweed (impatiens capensis), a plant that is known to grow near poison ivy and has been used for centuries by native peoples and herbalists to counteract the affects of the toxic weed. Others contain topical antihistamines to counteract the allergic reaction.

There are also topical creams and gels (such as Ivy Block Lotion, Hylands’ Ivy Block Lotion, Enviroderm Ivy Block) to apply if you expect to come in contact with poison ivy. Some contain bentoquatam, a type of bentonite clay. These topicals either serve as a barrier to the urushiol or prevent the urushiol from binding to the skin’s natural oils.

Contrary to some urban myths, repeated exposure to small amounts of poison ivy does not enhance your immunity to the toxin; in many cases it actually intensifies future reactions. Another dangerous folk remedy for preventing poison ivy reactions is to ingest small amounts of the plant. This is not just dangerous, but can cause death. Equally toxic to the body is the inhaling of smoke from burning poison ivy/oak/sumac.

Despite Precautions, I Have Poison Ivy. What Can Be Done?

It is estimated that anywhere from 80 – 90 percent of human beings show an allergic reaction to exposure to poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. Some reactions are mild; others are quite severe, approaching anaphylaxis. In mild to moderate cases various topicals can be applied to reduce the characteristic itching, redness and blistering. Severe cases where the rash covers a major portion of the body, or when it appears to affect the moist tissue of the body such as the mouth, eyes, lungs, larynx, esophagus and/or digestive tract, an immediate trip to the emergency room is necessary or a call to 911.

10 Easy Remedies for Moderate Reactions

Sometimes the best remedies are those that are natural and have been found to be successful by our friends, neighbors, relatives and local herbalists. Here are some topical applications with ingredients you probably have in and around the house:

  1. Banana skins, plantain juice or puree
  2. Tea tree oil
  3. A paste of goldenseal root powder and aloe vera gel
  4. Jewelweed (If you have poison ivy in your yard, chances are jewelweed is growing nearby.)
  5. Juice from fresh cut rhubarb
  6. Baking soda mixed with water to form a paste
  7. Distilled white vinegar
  8. Epsom salt baths
  9. Lemon juice
  10. Honey suckle leaves, steeped in water

Calamine lotion is a standard tried and true treatment, and applying ice to the area will cool and numb the skin and at least temporarily reduce the symptoms.

Boost Your Immune System

Boosting your immune system may help to mitigate the symptoms as well.

  • Taking extra Vitamin C can help to prevent infection and slow down the rapid spread of the rash.
  • Calcium and Beta-Carotene help boost the immune response and speed healing.
  • Zinc helps to repair damaged skin tissue.

Urusiol is said to be one of the most potent natural toxins on the planet, and it is found just about everywhere. Avoiding getting this plant oil on your skin is the only absolute way to prevent it and to keep it from transferring to and from your clients.

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References:

Armstrong, W.P., and W.L. Epstein, M.D. “Poison Oak: More Than Just Scratching the Surface.” Herbalgram (American Botanical Council) 34:36-42, 1995. Web.7 Jul 2009. http://waynesword.palomar.edu/ww0802.htm.

“Home Remedies for Poison Ivy and Poison Oak.” June 28 2009. Home Made Medicine. 7 Jul 2009 http://www.homemademedicine.com/home-remedies-poison-ivy.htm.
“Ivy Off: Poison Ivy Facts & Fiction.” 2003. Ivy Off, Inc., 7 Jul 2009 http://www.ivyoff.com/factsandfiction.htm.

Martz, Eric. “Poison Ivy: An Exaggerated Immune Response to Nothing Much.” Poison Ivy Immunology. March 31, 1997. 7 Jul 2009 http://wwwbio.mass.edu/micro/immunology/poisoniv.htm.

“Natural Remedies.” Poison Ivy, Oak & Sumac Information Center. 7 Jul 2009 http://poisonivy.aesir.com/view/natural.html.

Werner, Ruth, LMP, NCTMB. “The Mysteries of Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac.” Massage Today 9.08August 2009 Web.7 Jul 2009. http://www.massagetoday.com/mpacms/mt/article.php?id=14045.