Urushiol sounds like the name of a vengeful demon

A couple of weeks back, on a day where I had gotten a bit more sleep than most days, and didn’t feel too bad, so I decided it was as good a time as I was going to get to launch my attack on the poison ivy climbing the west side of our house. We’ve had a very, very rainy spring and summer this year, and the stuff is totally out of control.

I should have done it sooner, but I stalled because I dreaded the risk; I am highly reactive to the substance in poison ivy (urushiol) that causes the rash – so much so that I have to be really careful eating fresh mango because the same substance is in the sap of that plant.

When I was a kid, I could charge through the woods and wade through brush and weeds with impunity. I’m sure I must have come in contact with poison ivy or poison oak at some point, but never got a rash. That changed about seven years ago when I broke with a terrible rash after mowing my yard.

I think I must have mowed over a small poison ivy plant in the grass and then walked through the clippings in my flip-flops. I started with a couple of bumps on one toe, and within a few days pretty much my entire body was covered in a horribly itchy raised rash of welts and scratches. I tried everything under the sun as far as over the counter treatments, and finally wound up at the doctor’s, to be sent home with a huge steroid prescription. I didn’t actually believe that it was poison ivy, at first, because 1. I’d never reacted to it before and 2. I had a rash in places that there was no way had been in contact with the stuff (under my hair? deep down inside my ear canal?) but I was told that sometimes the reaction is so bad that the rash shows up all over, not just in the spots where the sap actually touched. Yippee.

The following year, I managed to get exposed again. This time it was on one hand after I’d been weeding around my rosebushes – I looked under the bush after the rash appeared and sure enough, there was a small clump of poison ivy hidden under there. Within a week, I was pretty much one big insanely itchy walking sore. This time I was sent home with an even stronger prescription plus two different antihistamines and instructions for soaking in oatmeal. It was a long, miserable six weeks. I think even the inside of my nose broke out.

After that, I became very paranoid about poison ivy. Whereas before I’d had trouble really identifying the stuff, two different go-arounds with it prompted me to become very educated and I can now identify it at all times of the year, even when it looks slightly atypical. Which is good, because we are literally surrounded with the stuff where we live now. I hate yellow jackets more, but poison ivy is worse in some ways because you always know immediately when you have run afoul of yellow jackets, and with a little luck you can even outrun most of the angry swarm (speaking from personal experience) whereas it’s a good two days before you find out you’ve blundered into poison ivy.

So, back to where I started: I donned foot and a half long rubber gloves, long sleeves,  tucked my sweatpants into an old pair of heavy socks, and pulled my hair up in a bandana. Then I spent about two very satisfying hours ripping the shit out of a patch of poison ivy. I literally filled a 55 gallon contractor’s bag with the stuff. It looks so much better out there! Then I carefully stripped off the gloves and clothes I’d worn without touching any of the outer surfaces, scrubbed down with Tecnu poison ivy soap in the shower, and waited. I also started taking a precautionary dose of Zyrtec every day, so if the worst came to pass, I’d at least have a head start.

After two days I thought I was home free, but then after almost a week I realized that the ‘mosquito bite or maybe a hive’ on my throat wasn’t going away. I got suspicious. I kept taking the antihistamine. After a few more days, it was still there, still itchy (but not terribly so) and now had a couple of friends. Dammit.

Tomorrow will mark three weeks since my murderous rampage in the poison ivy patch. The three or four welts on my neck have been joined by one on my ribcage, one on my cheek, and one on my upper lip. It’s nowhere near as bad as it was those previous two times, so I suspect that it was a very, very slight exposure and maybe the Zyrtec is helping. At any rate, another couple of weeks or so and I should be in the clear.

The poison ivy will probably all have grown back up the side of the house again by then.

Featured Image: Contractor’s bag full of pulled-up poison ivy from the side of my house with a colorful filter applied. 

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