AUSTIN, Texas -- Think of it as the cockroach of the weed world. Poison ivy thrives in the extreme heat and drought and spreads through the most casual of contact. And, like the crunchy insect pests, it can seem impossible to eradicate.
It's enough to make one hole up in the house all spring and summer. What kind of a world do we live in where this nasty weed flourishes while Christmas trees wither and die?
For Pete's sake -- "poison" is right in its name, people.
With all of summer's outdoor activity, we're scratching our information itch by looking at what threats the weed poses and how they can be avoided or at least mitigated and treated.
Urushiol oil is present in all parts of the poison ivy plant, and you'll know whether you've come in contact with it -- most people will develop an itchy, blistering rash. The more you've come in contact, the more allergic you're likely to become.
This rash might not develop until 12 to 24 hours after contact, when it's too late to take steps to prevent or lessen the effects, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
And there are surprising ways to become infected. A lot of people get it by using gas or electric trimmers, says Trisha Shirey, director of Flora & Fauna at Lake Austin Spa Resort. Shirey designed and maintains the organic herb and vegetable gardens that contribute to the getaway's dining room menus as well as the arrangements of flowers and shrubs that decorate the grounds. "They don't know they've weeded poison ivy, and then they handle the trimmer head and get it that way," she says.
If you do notice that you've been exposed to the vine (its leaves grow in clusters of three, and it sprouts green-yellow flowers in the spring), there are some immediate steps you can take:
* Rinse your skin with lukewarm (not hot) water. It is possible to remove some of the oil.
* Wash tools and any clothing that might have come in contact with the vine. Oil remaining on these surfaces can re-infect.
* Bathe your pets. Although they won't develop allergic reactions, critters can transfer urushiol oil from their hair or fur to humans or onto surfaces with which owners might come in contact.
Once a rash has developed, there are ways to ease your suffering (which can last for several weeks).
Don't worry about scratching the rash and then transferring it to other parts of your body. Once a rash has developed, that can't happen. Further outbreaks are a delayed result of the original exposure.
The AAD recommends oatmeal or baking soda baths, calamine lotion, cool showers and compresses, and oral antihistamines to relieve the intense itching (the academy says that topical antihistamines, however, can make the rash and the itching worse).
Shirey uses Tecnu (www.teclabsinc.com), a skin cleanser formulated to remove urushiol after exposure but before a rash develops. But when the cleanser is not enough, she adds a white or green clay facial mask.
If you have a serious reaction that includes difficulty breathing and swallowing, or swelling -- especially to the face -- you should seek immediate medical attention. Severe cases may require steroid ointments or antibiotics.
Getting rid of the noxious weed is tough but not impossible, Shirey says. The key is to literally nip the problem in the bud.
"One of the ways it gets transmitted is with birds, so you'll find young sprouts coming up here and there, and the best thing to do is to get that sprout out by the root before it has a chance to grow," Shirey says. If you just trim, the weed will rebound to be stronger. "I'll use several layers of gloves and actually dig the root out and seal it up in a plastic bag and throw it in the trash," she explains. Shirey uses a dandelion weeder and says that the roots come out more easily after a rain.
Although the groundskeeper also uses sprays, she avoids commercial products, preferring her own eco-friendly mixture. She applies it on hot, sunny days (so rain won't wash it off) and begins to see the leaves become crisp and brown within 15 or 20 minutes.
Burning poison ivy is not recommended. "The oil is volatile in smoke, and you can inhale it into your lungs and get very, very ill," Shirey warns.