"Leaves of three
leave them be"
A challenging trail run is a great way to train and get closer to nature. But there can be drawbacks for the unprepared runner. In addition to the potential dangers of the sun's rays and the discomfort of insect bites, outdoor enthusiasts should be aware of the evils of a pair of nasty and nagging plants: poison oak and poison ivy.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology in Schaumburg (Usa/Illinois), the toxic oily resin from these plants is among the country's most common sources of allergic reactions, affecting as many as 50 million North Americans each year. And for those active in the great outdoors, there is little escape from these toxic weeds.
Poison oak - A low-lying shrub, small tree or vine with three or five leaflets and clusters of yellow berries that is found in the West and Southwest. The plant's leaves turn a deep red in the fall.
Poison ivy - A low-growing shrub or vine with green-yellow flowers and white berries that is dominant east of the Rockies but present in other regions as well.
The "poison" in each of these plants is urishiol, the colorless or slightly yellow oil that oozes from any cut or crushed portion of the plant. Those sensitive to poison oak and ivy don't need to come in contact with the plant to develop the rash. Since urushiol spreads so quickly and can be invisible, it may be carried on animal fur, garden tools, sports equipment, your running clothes, or any other object that comes in contact with the resin. Fumes from burning plants can irritate the lungs, often affecting fire fighters and farmers clearing fields.
Once urushiol touches the skin, it begins to penetrate. If you are among the estimated 85 percent of the population sensitive to the sappy substance, a reaction will usually appear within 12-48 hours as a line or a streak of rashes resembling insect bites. Redness and swelling will begin in a couple of days, with blisters and severe itching lasting from a few days to several weeks. For those with darker-colored skin, small dark spots can remain even after the rash heals. And because sweating aggravates the reaction, it can even leave you unable to run.
Potential sensitivity to these plants is hard to define or categorize. Children are often infected for the first time between ages 8 and 16, often with cases that can include swollen eyes and severe fever. Although any part of the body is susceptible, thicker-skinned areas like the soles of the feet and palms of the hand are often unaffected. And although sensitivity to the rash can decline with age, adults should not assume they are immune, even if they never suffered from the rash as children. Fair-skinned people are the most susceptible.
Avoiding these poisonous plants is the best for of prevention. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, learn to recognize them. This isn't always easy because they resenble non-toxic foliage. So if you are not sure, wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and gloves if possible. Keep your pets from running through poisoned areas. And never burn any of these plants.
However, if you think you may have had contact with poison oak or ivy, wash all potentially exposed areas with cold running water from a stream, lake or garden hose as soon as possible. Washing done within 15 minutes of exposure can neutralize the sap and prevent it from spreading.
When you return home, wash all clothing outside to prevent resin from transferring to rugs or furniture. Since urushiol can remain active for months, make certain to wash all camping gear or equipment that may be carrying the resin. In some extreme cases, the allergic reaction to urushiol has caused kidney damage and neurological problems.
If you develop a rash, avoid scratching the blisters. Although the fluid in blisters will not spread the rash, fingernails may carry the resin or germs that could cause an infection.
Successful treatment for the rash varies. In some instances, Hydrocortisone cream as well as Calamine and Caladryl lotions are recommended to help dry oozing lesions. Other over-the-counter products such as rubbing alcohol and Tecnu lotion work well to neutralize the toxins if used within a few hours after contact. A medication that contains the plant's extract is sometimes prescribed for firefighters, but because of potential severe side effects is not recommended for the general public.
Another nasty plant found along Northwest trails is Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica). Although not as toxic as the poison duo, an encounter with nettles can cause severe, short-term irritation. Nettles have tiny prickly hairs that stick in your skin, and sting and itch like crazy. If bitten, do not scratch. Instead, wash the affected area with water and the irritation should subside immediately.
Run The Planet thanks James Raia (www.byjamesraia.com) for the permission to reprint the article "A Trail Runner's Curse: Poison Oak, Ivy and Sumac", published on the August 2004 issue of "Northwest Runner" with the title "All-Natural Trail Hazards". James Raia is the publisher of the free electronic newsletters Tour de France Times and Endurance Sports news, both available on his website http://www.byjamesraia.com. Text copyright © 2004 by James Raia. Illustration copyright © by Run The Planet.