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Itching for relief

How to avoid poison ivy and what to do if you don’t

June 15, 2010
By CHRISTOPHER DIEM Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE - Leaves of three, let it be.

That old adage warns of the dangers of poison ivy, found throughout most of the country, including the Upper Peninsula.

Poison ivy can be identified by its three-leaf cluster. The leaves are usually green, but can be a reddish color in the spring and yellow or red in the fall. They are slightly shiny and don't have serrated edges. The plant's flowers, which usually bloom from May to July, are yellowish or greenish white. Leaf clusters alternate coming off the main branch so there are no symmetrical offshoots. The plant's stem is brown and does not have thorns.

Article Photos

This sign, situated near Gaines Rock in Marquette clearly states that poison ivy is growing nearby and visitors shoud have precautions to avoid it. (Journal photo by Christopher Diem)

The plant produces an oil called urushiol, a skin irritant that causes an allergic reaction resulting in rash or blisters. Urushiol will stick to the skin of anyone that touches the plant itself or touches something else that touched the plant, such as clothes, tools or a pet's fur.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, about 85 percent of people develop an allergic reaction when adequately exposed to poison ivy and only about 15 percent seem to be resistant. A poison ivy rash can last anywhere from one to four weeks. Urushiol can penetrate skin in minutes but it may take longer for any symptoms to appear, usually 12 to 72 hours.

A red, bumpy and itchy rash usually appears and can produce oozing blisters. It sometimes appears on separate areas of the body up to a week apart which has led to the misconception that the rash is spreading. However by the time the rash appears the oil is usually not longer on the skin.

Scratching makes the itch worse and could prolong symptoms and cause a skin infection.

If caught quickly, however, it may be possible to avoid symptoms altogether.

"If you realize you're in poison ivy and you immediately wash with soap and water you probably won't get it," said Dr. Milton Soderberg, a local dermatologist.

Soderberg said he's heard cases of poison ivy being burned, people inhaling the smoke and getting an allergic reaction in their lungs.

"I remember one family where the son was in the woods a lot on his four wheeler. He would come home and dry his clothes in the laundry room. When his mother handled the clothes, the urushiol was still on his clothes and she got it," Soderberg said.

He said over-the counter treatments include calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream.

If symptoms increase in severity, Soderberg said to visit a doctor.

If severe reactions to poison ivy continue, Soderberg suggested oral or topical steroids.

The plant is also apparently tenacious. The city has tried several times to eradicate poison ivy on Gaines Rock near Founders Landing without success.

"I've talked to people whose families have lived here for generations and they said poison ivy has always been on that rock," said City Arborist Paul Albert.

Christopher Diem can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. His e-mail address is



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