Goshen News, Goshen, IN

February 1, 2013

You can catch the poison ivy itch even in winter months

By JOE LAMP’L
SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE

— It’s the dead of winter and I have a serious case of poison ivy. I suppose the proper description is contact dermatitis brought on by an allergic reaction to Toxicodendron radicans. I include the scientific name if only to point out the root word of this genus. This poisonous plant is perhaps best known for its production of urushiol, a clear substance found in the sap that is the culprit of so much misery.

But who would have thought such a reaction at this time of year? Well, me actually. Even in its leafless state, every part of the vine is toxic. The oils, which can remain active for several years, freely transfer onto any surface they contact. So, in spite of taking proper precautions like wearing long sleeves and gloves that go up to my elbows, eye protection, boots and hat, along with the obvious step of making sure to never touch any part of the plant, I still become exposed when some part of me comes in contact with something that touched the vine — like my dog, for example.

This winter outbreak is really just a continuation of a battle I’ve been fighting since early summer. It started when I began clearing the land to our new home and farm in early summer. Volunteer trees and vines, so dense that in most areas you could only see a few feet into the thicket, overtook the property. These beasts certainly took full advantage of their several years of solitude and unrestrained growth, after the previous owners downsized and before the house was finally occupied again, by me.

Since moving in, my weekend routine and therapy is to get outside and work around the property. For the past six months and well into the future, my focus has been and will be mostly on the eradication campaign of these godforsaken vines. But it is now bordering on obsession. I’m seeing progress and even find myself looking for small windows to get outside during the week to go at it some more.

I also know that I am racing the seasonal clock. The starkness of winter is the best time to see these vines and minimize the risk of inadvertent skin contact. When everything is dormant, including the ivy, it sticks out like a sore thumb, with the dark-brown, thick, hairy vines snaking up the trunks of lighter-colored host trees. But now, it won’t be long before the exposure risk increases exponentially, when these sleeping vines begin to leaf back out in spring.

Even in summer, I can spot poison ivy a mile away. In the early years, I didn’t see it coming. In more recent times, I know when I’m about to get it before even being exposed. I’ve had it so much, in fact; that I was hoping to become immune to it by now. Didn’t happen. Instead, I’ve learned to live with it, while always resisting the urge to scratch that unrelenting inevitable weeklong itch that follows even the slightest contact to the oil.

If you’ve ever had it, you know the feeling. During the day, I can usually stay busy enough to distract myself from the incessant urge to scratch. My current avoidance activity is a full-scale eradication campaign. It’s a bittersweet pursuit, though. I know I am subjecting myself to even more problems, but my impatient desire to slay the dragon supersedes any commonsense restraint I should be exercising during these highly focused, adrenaline-fueled assaults. But at bedtime, as I unwind and try and clear my head from a typical crazy day, it rears its ugly head.

It’s always worse at night. With nothing else to occupy my attention, the itch is just ramping up. Yes, I know there are products available to mitigate the suffering. I use them. Yet even then, sometimes my threshold of tolerance is crossed, and twice in my life I’ve had to seek medical relief — including a 2 a.m. emergency-room visit the first time I ever had a reaction.

Although I realize I’ll never become immune to the effects of exposure, I guess I am becoming more tolerant of it. These days, I usually just tough it out and eventually fall asleep, dreaming about a future without poison ivy.