Scratch Weeks of Discomfort, Not Outdoor Fun

As the summer approaches we’re back outdoors enjoying hiking, camping, and picnicking. We’re working in our yards, attending sporting events and barbeques, and loving the warm weather and beautiful flowers. However, there’s a serious side to outdoor play. We don’t want to sound like a teaser for a Steven King novel, but there are certain dangers lurking in the trees and among the bushes, trails and woods that we need to know about. These aren’t necessarily all life threatening, but certainly can be annoying and, in some cases, can lead to serious illness or even death. We’re not talking lions, tigers, and bears (oh my), but about poisonous plants.

Poisonous plants adorn trails, parks, yards, golf courses and ballfields across the Northeastern United States. While it goes without saying that we should never pick and eat a wild berry we don’t know and recognize distinctly (like wild blueberries or blackberries), there are dozens of inviting berries growing in bushes along paths that can sicken or kill us if ingested. Same goes for toadstools (mushrooms) growing in the wild. Don’t even touch them, unless you are trained and know what you’re doing.

Plants poison people in two ways – contact with the skin and contact with the mouth, including swallowing. Reactions range from mild skin irritation to much more serious effects. It is common that one part of a plant is poisonous while other parts are not.

Different types of poisonous plants affect the body differently. Stomach upset, including vomiting and diarrhea, and skin rash are the most common problems. Some examples of plants that can cause stomach upset include pokeweed, ivy, Jerusalem cherry, and the bulbs of the daffodil, and iris. Poinsettia can be a mild irritant, but only in very large quantities, and is not considered to be very poisonous.

Almost any plant can cause a skin rash (dermatitis) in sensitive people. Daisy, black-eyed-susan, and hyacinth are some common examples of plants that can cause dermatitis. Additionally, some plants have calcium oxalate crystals, which cause burning and swelling of the throat, tongue, and mouth. Jack-in-the-pulpit, philodendron, and dieffenbachia are among the many plants that have this needle-like irritant. Rhubarb contains another type of oxalate. Eating large amounts of rhubarb leaves may damage the kidneys and other organs.

Foxglove, lily-of-the-valley, and oleander are very toxic. They are examples of cardiac glycosides. Cardiac glycosides can affect the heart rate and rhythm. Symptoms may include nausea and vomiting, belly pain, slowed heart rate, irregular heart rhythm, dropping blood pressure, and lethargy. Death may occur in severe cases.

Avoiding the most common intruders — poisonous ivies

The most common poisonous plants we typically see in Connecticut include Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac. Each of these can produce a topical reaction that includes a rash, itching, and weepy open sores and blisters that easily spread when scratched or touched. People who are highly allergic can be affected by spores carried in the air, or when the poisonous leaves are burned, but most people react after touching or brushing up against the plants or items that have been in contact with the plants’ oils. In more serious cases, the reaction can spread across the body, and even get into your bloodstream.

  • Poison Ivy usually has three broad, spoon-shaped leaves or leaflets (“Leaves of three? Let it be!”), but it can have more. It may grow as a climbing or low-spreading vine that sprawls through or as a shrub. It’s common to see it along fences and stone walls, and throughout wooded areas. Most people are allergic to the oily resin or sap of poison ivy. You can get a rash by touching any part of the poison ivy plant, or anything that has come in contact with poison ivy and still has the oily resin on it (for example, gardening equipment and tools, toys, pets, clothing, shoes, gardening gloves, camping equipment and sports gear).
  • Poison Sumac has seven to 13 leaflets per leaf stem. The leaves have smooth edges and pointed tips. Poison sumac grows as a shrub or small tree. It is found in wooded, swampy areas and in wet, wooded areas.
  • Poison Oak has leaves that look like oak leaves, usually with three leaflets but sometimes up to seven leaflets per leaf group. It grows as a vine or a shrub. Poison oak is more common in the western United States, but is also found in the eastern United States.

Plants may look different depending on the season and the area where they are growing. But all of these plants have small white, tan, cream, or yellow berries in the fall. Their berries can help distinguish them from harmless but similar plants. Also, after the leaves have fallen off, these plants can sometimes be identified by the black color on areas where the oil in the plant has been exposed to air.

The best approach for beating any allergic reaction is to avoid the source that triggers it. Here are some tips to help you steer clear of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac:

  • Avoid areas where you know poisonous plants grow, whenever possible.
  • Cover up with closed shoes, socks, long pants, long sleeves, and gloves. Wash any clothes that come in contact with poisonous plants as soon as you can.
  • If you do get exposed, wash your skin with soap and water, or rubbing alcohol. Though the timeframe varies by person, you have about 10 minutes to wash a poisonous plant’s oil off your skin before the stage is set for a rash.
  • Scrub under your nails. You can spread poison ivy to other parts of your body by having the oil on your fingers.
  • If you suspect your pet has rolled around in a poisonous plant, give him a bath with pet shampoo and water — before you hug or touch him. Wear rubber gloves while you give your pet a bath.
  • Oil from poison ivy and other poisonous plants can get on golf clubs, balls, bats, and any other objects, and can remain potent for as long as five years. Make it a habit to wash sports equipment, gardening tools, and other outdoor items with soap and water.

Ultimately, if you do come in contact with and react to one of these common poisonous plants, there are a variety of over-the-counter remedies, lotions and drugs (such as strong antihistamines like Benadryl, and topical treatments such as hydrocortisone) available. The best advice always is to seek professional assistance from your physician or pharmacist to see what’s recommended, how to care for yourself, and how it might react with other drugs or medicine you may be taking. In serious cases where the rash is spreading quickly and leaving blisters or sores, you should seek immediate medical attention from a physician or medical center. You may require a stronger medicine administered by injection, or other care to prevent the infection from entering your bloodstream and potentially causing internal damage.

Being outdoors is healthy and fun, but you still have to be careful. We’ll save common biting insects and snakes for another day!

# # #
Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!