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"Leaves of three, let it be…"
More than half the population has an allergic reaction to the three plants aptly named poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. This allergic reaction is in the form of a skin condition medically referred to as contact dermatitis--what regular people call a rash, complete with oozing blisters and terrible itching. This skin condition takes about two weeks to run its course; however, a visit to the doctor is in order if you have a severe case or develop it in sensitive areas such as the face.
This allergic skin condition is caused by a substance called urushiol oil, a compound found in many plants in the Cashew family (Anacardiaceae)-including poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac--and of course, the family's namesake, cashews. It is caused solely by contact with urushiol oil from the plant, and not spread by scratching or contact with oozing blisters.
Quick action is required upon contact with poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac. It doesn't take long for urushiol oil to penetrate the skin and cause a rash, followed by blisters, and itching to appear on the skin.
Heading to the drugstore for some calamine lotion is the first reaction most people have, but what do you do if you're out in the wilderness miles from the nearest drug store?
If you have rubbing alcohol in your first aid kit, wipe generous amounts of it in the area of contact. You can also use water. If possible, power-wash your skin where it has come in contact with the plant-stand under a waterfall or in a fast moving current. Do not use soap, as it may spread the oil around to other parts of your skin.
Grab a handful of jewelweed or touch-me-not plants, crumple them up and rub vigorously over the area of contact. The juice in the stems of these plants is what helps to dilute the oil.
If blisters have started to appear, dab with witch hazel or make a paste using clay and apply like a mask. Both are drying agents and will help to dry up the blisters. So will baking soda and colloidal oatmeal but you probably don't have that in your backpack.
Placing a cool compress or dabbing the affected area with tea tree oil (if you've brought some along) might make you feel better by distracting your nerve endings and deflecting the itch. Chances are you have aloe vera gel with you. If so, use it to soothe and heal red, inflamed skin.
One folk remedy used for insect bites and stings involves placing the inside of a ripe banana peel over the itchy skin. The peel contains tannins, which are known to reduce inflammation by shrinking and constricting skin membranes. If you happen to have any bananas, try it. Some people swear by it and you just never know.
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