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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Up to Scratch?

The Noxious Twins —
Poison Ivy and Poison Oak

By Tamia Nelson

May 22, 2007

Weekend field trips were the bane of my student years, and this one was no exception. Our class stood in an opening in a lush woodland, high above a fast-flowing mountain river. The late-summer sun felt warm on my face, and my mind drifted away from the professor's lecture about the weathered limestone outcrop in front of us. I was looking at the rushing water, instead, reading the river, figuring out how I could thread my kayak through the rock garden and swirling eddies below me. And I wasn't the only student whose thoughts weren't on the professor's words, either. Dave had also drifted away. He stood next to me, plucking idly at any vegetation within reach and systematically stripping the leaves from each stem that came to hand.

Suddenly, he turned toward me, brandishing his latest trophy. A woody stalk bearing three bright red leaflets dangled from his hand. "Real pretty leaves, huh?" he whispered, waving them before me like a magic wand.

I lifted my eyes from the dancing water, only to jerk back when I saw the scarlet leaflets. "Are you crazy, Dave?" I blurted. "That's poison ivy you've got there!"

Dave's face fell. He tossed the stalk away. Then he wiped his fingers on his jeans. But it didn't help. By Monday, Dave's wrists and hands were covered in an itchy red rash. And he wasn't alone. Other member of my class had also found the lure of the red leaves too hard to resist. For a couple of weeks afterward, there was a whole lot of scratchin' goin' on in my geology class.


Discussions of whitewater hazards don't often mention poison ivy. Maybe they should. After all, both poison ivy and poison oak are common sights along riverbanks, and they've been bedeviling travelers in the backcountry of North America since the days of Captain John Smith, one of the founders of the Jamestown colony in Virginia. He penned what may well have been the earliest description of the plant, pointing out its resemblance to English "Yvie" but warning would-be botanists that it "causeth redness, itchynge, and finally blysters." That was four centuries ago, yet poison ivy is still claiming new victims. Farwell's uncle once used a handful of the stuff as a substitute for toilet paper on a family camping trip. Needless to say, he didn't repeat his mistake. Many others do, however. Every year. And not a few of these hapless victims are paddlers, caught short by an irresistible urge while scouting a drop from shore or simply taking a lunch break by the river.

What's the remedy? As Louis Pasteur observed, "fortune favors the prepared mind," and there's no better preparation than learning to …

Know the Enemy

Poison ivy and poison oak are look-alike cousins, members of the same family of plants, a group that also embraces the mango, the sumacs, and the pistachio. Taxonomists argue over their proper scientific names and correct classification. There's even a dispute over the common names, with some authorities favoring the hyphenated "poison-oak" and "poison-ivy," supposedly to emphasize that neither is a true ivy, the same point made by Captain John Smith in the early 1600s. Poison ivy and poison oak don't just look alike, however; the sap and tissues of both plants also contain urushiol, a potent allergen. While a lucky minority of folks — estimates range between 15 and 30 percent of the population — are immune to urushiol's irritating effects, the rest of us are only a quick brush away from contact dermatitis, the all-too-familiar itchy red rash. Do you think you're one of the lucky ones? Don't count on it. Immunity waxes and wanes throughout life, so you may not be as safe as you imagine. And don't think that the danger ends with the first hard frost and the fall of the leaf. Even long-dead poison ivy or poison oak plants still contain urushiol.

OK. Poison ivy and poison oak are similar. But how do you spot them in the backwoods? Here's a short course, beginning with…

Poison Ivy Poison Ivy.  The photo on the left shows a typical leaf — yes, this in only one leaf, a compound leaf comprising three leaflets — but don't be deceived: poison ivy is a chameleon among plants. Sometimes it's a climbing vine. Sometimes it's a shrub. And occasionally it's a ground-dwelling creeper. Sometimes the trifoliate leaves are as small as a child's hand; at other times they're bigger than a legal pad. What about the individual leaflets? No joy, I'm afraid. Sometimes they're thin and smooth, but they're often leatherlike and hairy.

Confusing? You bet. But at least the leaflets are always green, right? Wrong! Sometimes the leaflets are yellow, red, or maroon. In fact, poison ivy can be the brightest spark in the late-summer or early-autumn woods. Get the picture? No? Then here's the key to the mystery, a jingle from my childhood: Leaflets three, let it be. Simple and to the point. If the plant you see before you has three-part compound leaves, and if there are no thorns on the stalk, it's probably poison ivy (or poison oak, but we'll get to that in a minute). This little jingle isn't foolproof. The innocuous box elder also has three-part compound leaves, and a few poison ivy plants have five-part leaves, but the jingle's a pretty good guide for all that — almost fail-safe.

Is it late in the year? Have all the leaves gone? Don't worry. You can still avoid poison ivy. Just heed the second part of the old jingle: Berries white, danger in sight. It's less often heard, but no less important. Other plants have white berries, but this is as good a late-autumn field mark as you're going to find without becoming an amateur botanist. Give any plant that sports white berries a wide berth, and you'll likely miss falling victim to poison ivy. (Curiously, the white berries are a favorite food of many birds, including the ruffed grouse. This is a case of one species' poison being another's meat, I guess.)


Do you paddle Western waters? Then maybe you've heard that poison ivy is an Eastern plant, and you figure you've got one less thing to worry about. Well, I hate to break the bad news, but it ain't necessarily so. It's true that poison ivy is more common east of the Rockies, but it gets around. (Birds help to spread the seeds.) And western paddlers have their own nemesis …

Poison Oak Poison Oak.  Actually, at least one type of poison oak is also found in the East, but there's no need to get too deep into taxonomic quibbles. And poison oak, too, is a chameleon among plants. You can see a typical trifoliate leaf here, but remember that "typical" means just that — and no more. Like its cousin, poison oak is wonderfully diverse. In fact, it goes poison ivy one better, producing berries that are green, white, or tan. Still, the same jingle provides a good first step in your strategy of avoidance. Leaflets three, let it be. And leave the rest to the experts. That's the safest course.


Suppose, however, that you follow the rules and still find yourself scratching. You're sure to ask yourself …

Where Did I Go Wrong?

The possibilities are legion and as variable as the plants themselves. Urushiol is a good traveler. It can get on your skin when you pet your dog — or when you pull off your wellies after a hard bushwhack or long portage. A few unlucky paddlers have even thrown poison ivy on their evening campfires. This is (to borrow a phrase from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four) double-plus ungood. Inhaling urushiol droplets suspended in smoke is guaranteed to make you miserable. It can also land you in the hospital. The moral of the story? Be especially careful what you burn, as well as when and where. Or else.


Most often, however, backwoods carelessness will only result in contact dermatitis, and simple measures will be enough to get you through a siege. If you're already staring at an itchy red rash, and you think poison ivy or poison oak is the culprit, your next question is almost certainly going to be …

What Can I Do About It?

Thorough washing with soap and water is recommended in many first-aid textbooks, and that's good advice, but it has to be done within minutes of exposure to be of any value. (And plain water will probably just spread the irritating oil.) In any case, by the time the rash appears it's far too late to wash away your troubles. You'll just have to let the misery run its course. But at least you don't need to worry about the fluid from the blisters. It doesn't contain urushiol, and it won't exacerbate the rash.

In the meantime, you'll want to do something to ease the itch. Calamine lotion is a time-honored treatment, and it works for some. Cool saltwater compresses may also help — they're an obvious choice for sea kayakers — and topical steroids are often used, as well: Medicine for Mountaineering recommends 0.25 percent hydrocortisone cream, though only when applied to "limited areas." Of course, steroids aren't a good idea for everyone. Better talk to your doctor first. When all is said and done, however, many sufferers find these cures worse (or at least more troublesome) than the disease itself, and they reluctantly decide to tough it out. Just don't scratch! That invites infection. In a few days, the itch will lessen. In a week or so, the rash will only be a memory. But be warned: Serious cases — inhalation, widespread rash, intense itching — may require systemic steroid therapy. This goes well beyond the limits of backcountry first aid, so see a pro ASAP.

Whatever you do to treat your itch, don't neglect your clothes and gear. Urushiol is as patient as it is persistent. If you don't get all of it off the things you wear (and handle), you could find yourself itching again, many weeks after you thought you'd seen the last of your rash. A wash in a bucket of strong detergent solution is probably the best bet to clean your kit.

For most paddlers, most of the time, poison ivy and poison oak are avoidable nuisances. And that's a good thing. Who wants an itchy rash as a souvenir of any trip — let alone as a traveling companion? So bring your practical botany up to scratch. Leaflets three? Then let it be! Just remember this little ditty and you'll be fine.

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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