For the past 9 years, I’ve been shamelessly bragging about how I’m not allergic to poison ivy. After all, 15% of Americans are resistant to the stuff. Despite being an avid adventure seeker and crawling through my fair share of wilderness, I’ve never had a reaction before! Well, as it turns out I didn’t really know what poison ivy was this whole time, and now I look like this:
My encounter did, however, get me thinking: what other myths about plants and bugs have I fallen a fool to? This week’s Adventure Blog will cover my two favorite outdoor topics of myth: poison ivy and chiggers. Hopefully this information will make YOU more aware and feel more confident about your Tennessee outdoor excursions!
What I realized this past weekend is that every time someone said to me “Watch out! That’s poison ivy,” they were wrong! Virginia Creeper is a five-leaf plant that was most often identified as poison ivy.
It wasn’t until this weekend that I actually came into contact, and YES, I am allergic! Sure, I’m itchy, but my reaction isn’t much worse than having a few chigger bites (which I’ll get to next). Some anti-itch cream and a corticosteroid prescription are doing the trick just fine!
How to identify it: “Leaves of three, sorry you’ll be; leaves of five, let it thrive!”
There are many harmless plants with “leaves of three,” like strawberries, so how do you know which plants to avoid? Here are a few things to look for:
- There are three leaves, but the middle leaf will have a longer stem, while the other two leaves will have a shorter stem with an asymmetrical leaf (“Longer middle stem, stay away from them!”)
- The leaves are pointed on the end
- Young poison ivy leaves will have a red tint (“Red leaflets in the spring, a dangerous thing!”)
- Newer leaves will appear waxy while older leaves will appear dull
- Poison Ivy is a vine plant and will have “hairy” tendrils along the vine (“Hairy vine, no friend of mine!”)
It’s actually the oil on the leaves and vine that your skin reacts to. So, if you touch it and are able to rinse off right away, chances are you’ll be fine! On the flip side, if you get the oils on your clothing, shoes, or equipment/tools and days later touch those items, your skin will still react to the oils. You’ll need to thoroughly clean anything that may have been exposed.
Important! Burning the plant is a no-no! The oils in the plant become airborne, which can not only penetrate the skin, but can also affect your eyes, nostrils, throat, and respiratory system.
About the Rash
Some people with severe allergies will react within an hour of exposure and can form painful blisters. For the most part, however, it could take 1-3 days before symptoms appear. I was exposed on Sunday morning, but my symptoms didn’t start to appear until Monday evening. At first I thought the bumps on my wrist were flea bites, but by Tuesday afternoon the small bumps multiplied into clusters, by Wednesday the clusters became streaks and started appearing on my forearm. By Thursday the bumps were on my shoulder and I FINALLY gave up all hope that I had bug bites!
Here are a few things to know about the rash:
- Once the oils have been washed off, they are gone. The rash cannot be spread from one person to another in the absence of the plant oils.
- The rash cannot be spread by itching it. The fluid from blisters is not contagious.
- If the rash appears to be spreading, it’s because your immune system has been able to block the appearance of symptoms in some areas for longer than other areas.
- Though scratching the rash won’t spread the rash to different areas of skin, it will cause the rash to take longer to heal.
- Heat will irritate the rash and make it become inflamed (ie. more itchy!). Cold showers and cold compresses on the rash will help it heal more quickly.
- If itching at night is an issue, try an antihistamine before bed.
- The rash will last anywhere from 1-2 weeks after exposure. Antihistamines and corticosteroid (cream or oral treatment) can help to make the rash heal more quickly.
If you’ll be hiking in areas with lots of greenery, wear long layers (quick dry and loose fitting if it’s summer time). The less exposed skin you have, the less chances of contact; inspect areas of greenery before sitting or “squatting” (you know what I mean!); and as mentioned above, use a nearby water source to rinse your skin and clothing if you think you may have been exposed.
When I moved to Nashville in 2006, I had never heard of chiggers before, and when I got my first batch of chigger bites, I received some really hair-brained advice. There was no way this information about chiggers could be true. It sounded like something from a sci-fi film. So I did some research.
Here’s what I found out:
Myth: Chiggers burrow into your skin and stay there, so you should put clear nail polish on top of the bite to suffocate them!
Truth: Chiggers are tiny red mites (just barely visible to the naked eye), and start their life in a larva stage. In this stage they hang out on the ends of long grasses and jump on to passersby. They have no interest in your blood. Instead they inject an enzyme into your skin cells which damage the cells. It’s the damaged skin cells that provide them nourishment. They then jump off and move into their next stage of life, leaving you behind with a hard red itchy bump of damaged skin cells. The proper form of treatment for chigger bites is to wash the skin thoroughly (to make sure they aren’t still hanging out!), then apply frequent amounts of calamine lotion or corticosteroid cream (as prescribed). Give the skin plenty of exposure to fresh air in order to heal properly.
Much as with the poison ivy rash, hot water will irritate the skin, so shower with cold water or use cold compresses to reduce inflammation.
Prevention Tips: Chigger bites are most commonly found in areas where the skin is extra soft (ankles, groin, armpits, and bend of the elbow or knee), so keep those areas covered with tight-fitting clothing when exploring areas of untreated grass. Mosquito repellents will generally also repel chiggers.
With all that being said I want to finish with one quick message: It’s all worth it!
Don’t let a few bug bites or plant rashes keep you from living your life and enjoying all the wonders of nature. One or two amazing days of adventure is well worth the 2-10 days of mild itching you may encounter, which in every instance can be prevented with the right skin covering and application of repellents. If you’re really worried, visit an allergist like the Allergy, Asthma & Sinus Center (who, by the way, will be presenting at our July Wellness Workshop: Seasonal Allergies!)
THEN… check out some of our upcoming adventures at TeamGreenAdventures.com!
-Keeley (Team Green’s Director)