I was pregnant when poison oak first got me. Since I grew up in England, where stinging nettles are as bad as it gets, I had no idea what was going on.
But I woke up one morning with weeping blisters all over my arms, an oozing rash on my neck and what looked like a black eye, and my whole body felt maddeningly itchy. Worse still, my doctor forbade any kind of medication because of what it might to do my unborn child.
So yes, I am highly allergic to poison oak (and poison ivy and poison sumac, as it turned out), but then so are 80 percent of the population.
This means that the news that poison ivy plants are getting bigger and nastier due to climate change is unwelcome news to a whole lot of people. That’s right: climate change is not just heating up the oceans and creating extreme weather events, it’s also increasing your chances of getting a bad case of poison ivy or poison oak.
A study published in 2006 found that a rise in carbon dioxide both fueled the growth of these weeds and increased the potency of urushiol, the oil at the root of the rash. Poison oak and poison sumac also contain urushiol, and all three can cause the blistering rash, as many of us sufferers know.
More CO2 Means More Poison Ivy
That study involved planting PVC pipes into six plots of North Carolina’s 7,000-acre Duke Forest. Carbon dioxide was blown through holes in the pipes, which stretched to the tops of the tree canopies, while another control group of pipes vented normal air. Of all the plants, poison ivy was the hands-down winner, said Jacqueline Mohan, assistant professor at the University of Georgia and the study’s lead author.
“It was the most responsive species to the higher carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” Mohan said. “The average little tree that I measured grew 8 percent faster. And poison ivy grew 149 percent faster than it would have under ambient, normal carbon dioxide conditions.”
Since this first study, two other reports have found that as the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, it’s boosting the growth of poison ivy plants.
“Initial data suggests that there may be a more [powerful] form of urushiol being produced with increasing carbon dioxide,” says Lewis Ziska, PhD, a weed ecologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Md., and a co-researcher of both studies.
Growth Rate of Poison Ivy Doubled in Last 50 Years
In the last 50 years, Ziska says, the growth rate of the poison ivy plant has doubled. “The chances of encountering poison ivy and coming down with a rash are greater than they used to be,” he tells WebMD.
At the very least, getting poison ivy or poison oak can doom you to a week or more of miserable itching. At the worst you will end up in the emergency room. Neither is a pleasant prospect.
One solution is to never venture outside. On a more reasonable note, here’s what you need to know before you head out to the woods, or even the backyard.
Knowing what the evil weed looks like, so that you can avoid it, is the best plan.”Leaves of three, let it be” is the motto repeated by the experts. Each leaf of the poison ivy and poison oak plant has three leaflets.
If you suspect you might be in a poison ivy area, there are over-the-counter products, such as Technu and IvyBlock that can be effective if applied before exposure. They create a physical barrier, so the oil can’t penetrate the skin. You can also try applying even after you have been exposed.
Wearing long pants and long-sleeve shirts, even in the summer heat, is also recommended, as well as wearing socks and shoes to garden.
And always take a long shower (not a bath) if you think you may have been exposed to these nasty weeds.
Now, can someone tell me what is the point of these plants?
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