The Dangers of Poison Ivy – What You Don’t Know Might Kill You

Did you know poison ivy can kill you?

Most people associate poison ivy with an itchy rash. It’s true, this is the most common symptom. People generally acquire a poison ivy rash from coming in direct contact with the plant, either while walking through the woods, gardening, or weeding. When the urushiol oil present in the leaves and stems of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac, comes in contact with the skin, it initiates an immune response that triggers redness, swelling, and blistering, within 2 to 14 days.

But the skin is not the only organ that responds to this toxic chemical.

When the poisonous weeds are burned, the oil is aerosolized and carried in the smoke. Campfires and brush fires may inadvertently contain leaves and sticks from the poison ivy plant. When the smoke comes in contact with skin and mucous membranes, a chemical sensitivity is triggered. The unfortunate thing about urushiol hypersensitivity reaction is that it is delayed. If onset were immediate, the exposed person would be warned to get away from the toxic smoke. However, symptoms of aerosolized poison ivy allergy do not begin until well afterward, when it is too late to limit the extent of exposure.

The eyes, nose, throat, and bronchial tubes are all lined with mucous membranes. When these are exposed to urushiol, they will swell and turn red. Whereas swelling in the mouth, nose, and eyes may be highly irritating, swelling in the bronchial tubes can be life-threatening. An unfortunate patient may have his eyes swell shut and entire face become inflamed from exposure to poison ivy smoke. This alone is sufficient reason to use systemic steroids (a shot of cortisone, or pills). However, when the bronchial tubes swell, this is a medical emergency and requires intravenous treatment and possible intubation (tube in the throat). Additionally, blood pressure may be too low or too high, heart rate may race, and an exposed patient may require hospitalization in an intensive care unit to control the symptoms.

The oil can affect the digestive tract as well. Eating poison ivy would generally not be done on purpose, but the weed might be eaten inadvertently within a salad of field greens. In this case, the esophagus, stomach, and intestine would become inflamed and swollen, possibly creating an obstruction, a medical emergency that may require surgery. In addition to internal discomfort, digestion would be slowed, fluid loss or internal bleeding may occur, and blood pressure levels may be unstable. In the case of ingestion, the offending plant could be removed from the stomach if detected early enough, but this is unlikely to occur since the reaction is not immediate. The prolonged exposure as the oil transits through the colon may result in a severe reaction.

The best way to protect yourself is to recognize the plant and stay a safe distance away. Although ingesting poison ivy is uncommon, smoke exposure occurs on a regular basis. You don’t want to die as a result of burning brush or enjoying a campfire.

Copyright 2010 Cynthia J. Koelker, MD