It had been three weeks since I’d been hiking, so it came as a surprise when the doctor told me the nasty rash I had was a result of poison ivy. I was 17, and since then, I’ve been the unfortunate victim of no less than seven poison ivy rash attacks. After the sixth episode, you’d think I would know the ins and outs of poison ivy. But…no. The last time I walked through a patch of it, I looked back and wondered. Hey, did I just walk through poison ivy?
As a precaution, I kicked off my boots and dropped my pants into a river and washed them as best I could without actually touching any of the spots that I thought might be covered in urushiol, the colourless oil that had been the bane of my existence. But within hours, the rash started to appear. And by the next morning, I was covered in blisters.
If you have never had a poison ivy rash, I can tell you that the itch is absolutely maddening. You can douse yourself in pink calamine lotion, which takes the edge off a bit, but it takes every bit of concentration not to scratch. And you can’t scratch, because if you do, the itch increases tenfold. Even if you manage to avoid scratching yourself during the day, when you sleep, you won’t be able to stop yourself. So you wake up with an infuriating itch, half out of your mind for lack of sleep. And this goes on for 3-4 weeks. It’s enough to want to stay off the trails indefinitely.
What do you do if you think you’ve come into contact with poison ivy? Most professionals will tell you to wash the area with cool water, which is what I did. But when I saw the doctor about my rash, he said that the water just spreads the oil around. It’s better to wash the area with soapy water. And then wash all of your clothes and anything else that the oil may have come into contact with, including car seats, packs, and even pets. Dogs seem to be immune to the effects of poison ivy, but running your hands through a dog’s urushiol-covered fur will leave you very unhappy indeed. If you think you’ve come into contact with poison ivy, speed matters. You’ve got to get that oil off of you quickly.
If it’s too late and you begin to get a rash and blisters, calamine lotion might work for you. But if it’s more severe, you’ll need to get medical attention. Sometimes steroid treatments can be effective.
The best way to avoid getting a rash, of course, is to avoid coming into contact with poison ivy in the first place. Which is one of the advantages of being a hiker and living in Rocky Mountain House – no poison ivy in Alberta. Yeehaw!.
But if you’re stuck back in Ontario, be smarter than me; know what poison ivy looks like. And stay on the trail.
Happy (poison-ivy-free) hiking!