|Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
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What are the symptoms of Poisoning?
The first symptom of poisoning is a severe itching of the skin. Later, a red inflammation and a blistering of the skin occurs. In severe cases, oozing sores develop. The rash spreads by the poisonous sap (urushiol), not as the result of contamination from sores. The blood vessels develop gaps that leak fluid through the skin, causing blisters and oozing. When you cool the skin, the vessels constrict and don't leak as much according to Robert Rietschel, M.D. Chairman of Dermatolgy at New Orleans' Ochsner Clinic.
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Note: The zanfel site now has an excellent series of rash pictures.
How does Poisoning Occur?
Poison ivy, western poison oak, and poison sumac have the poisonous sap (urushiol) in their roots, stems, leaves and fruit. The sap is released when the plant is bruised, making it easier to contract Rhus-dermatitis in the spring and early summer when leaves are tender. The sap may be deposited on the skin by direct contact with the plant or by contact with contaminated objects, such as shoes, clothing, tools and animals. Severe cases have occurred from sap-coated soot in the smoke of burning plants. Because urushiol is inside the plant, brushing against an intact plant will not cause a reaction. But undamaged plants are rare because "Poison oak, ivy and sumac are very fragile plants," says William L. Epstein, M.D., professor of dermatology, University of California, San Francisco. Stems or leaves broken by the wind or animals, and even the tiny holes made by chewing insects, can release urushiol.
Can I spread it by Scratching?
"Rhus plants(poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac) are the most common cause of allergic contact dermatitis in the US. Rhus plans contain the potent antigen urushiol, which will sensitize 60% to 80% of the persons who are exposed to it. ...(It) may be carried on the fur of pets, clothing, shoes, toys, tools, or other objects and then transferred to the skin. Approximately 24 to 36 hrs after a sensitized person is exposed to the urushiol, a blistery, itching rash develops. Usually within 15 minutes of contact, the urushiol binds to skin proteins. If it is washed off with soap and water before that time, a reaction may be prevented. After the antigen is fixed, however, it cannot be washed off or transferred to other areas. Scratching or oozing blister fluid cannot spread the antigen to other areas of the body or to other persons. New lesions that appear a few days after the primary lesions represent less sensitive areas or areas where less antigen was deposited, not spreading of the antigen. Because the course of the reaction usually is 12 to 15 days, 2 weeks of medication should be prescribed. Reference [Dermatology in Primary Care 1994]
Once bound to cell membranes, urushiol is virtually impossible to wash off and attached to cell membranes becomes a "warning flag" that attracts patrolling T-cells and initiates a full-blown immune response. Reference [Herbalgram (American Botanical Council) Volume 34: 36-42, 1995 by W.P. Armstrong and W.L. Epstein, M.D.]
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How do I deal with the Rash?
After the oil has touched the skin, it usually takes some time for it to penetrate and do its damage. Before this happens, it is wise to wash the skin thoroughly several times with plenty of soap and water. Care should be taken not to touch any part of the body, for even tiny amounts of the oil will cause irritation. If poisoning develops, the blisters and red, itching skin may be treated with dressings of calamine lotion, Epsom salts, or bicarbonate of soda. Scientists have developed a vaccine that can be injected or swallowed. But this is effective only if taken before exposure.
If you don't cleanse quickly enough, or your skin is so sensitive that cleansing didn't help, redness and swelling will appear in about 12 to 48 hours. Blisters and itching will follow. For those rare people who react after their very first exposure, the rash appears after seven to 10 days.
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