Feeling itchy? Make sure you haven’t made contact with poison ivy, which is prolific near the desert waterways of this region.
Toxicodendron radicans, the botanical name for poison ivy, can cause severe irritation and itching to the skin. This area’s climate provides a hospitable atmosphere for poison ivy to grow, which might leave a damper on outdoor enthusiast if they have brushed against it while hiking, climbing or wading through moist creeks and canyons.
“In Grand County, I have most often seen [poison ivy] where there is water, which includes canyons and along the river,” said Michael Johnson, Utah State University Grand County extension director who has extensive horticultural experience. “Birds will eat the seeds and pass them along, so in theory, poison ivy could be anywhere that has the soil and water conditions necessary.”
Duncan Fuchise, a Moab resident, accidently came into contact with poison ivy last year while removing invasive trees along Mill Creek with the Utah Conservation Corps. “I didn’t wash it off after I knew I came in contact with it,” said Fuchise. “The rash I got was incredibly itchy and swelled a lot. It spread over a large portion of my torso, as well as on both arms and legs.” Fuchise’s allergic reaction required medical treatment from urgent care. “They prescribed me some steroids and once I took those it took about a week for it to fully go away,“ he said.
Recent sightings of poison ivy include the popular climbing crag Wall Street and Grandstaff Canyon. “There’s a huge poison ivy plant right next to Flakes of Wrath,” said Dalton Freeman, a local climber. “It’s not too difficult to avoid, just make sure you don’t fall in it or put your rope in it.” The National Park Service also warns that poison ivy is located in Fiery Furnace at Arches National Park.
Recognizing poison ivy can be a tricky pursuit due to its variable appearances. The plant’s basic anatomy is green pointed leaves that hang from stems in groups of threes, explained Johnson. Certain plants have serration, a wavy design, on the leaf edges, while others are smooth along the sides. The chameleon-like plant can also grow low to the ground as a shrub or climb upwards like a vine, making it difficult to distinguish one variety from a plant that might be harmless.
“I would suggest a field guide to have on hand and becoming familiar with [poison ivy] as much as possible through online information or from books,” Johnson advised.
Poison ivy secretes an oily resin called urushiol that contains allergic properties. After initial contact with the plant, oil can continue to spread onto other surfaces. “[Urushiol] can stick to clothing even if you don’t get it on your skin,” explained Johnson. “If someone else, or yourself, touches the clothing, then it’ll react on the skin.” The oil sticks to almost anything including outdoor gear, tools and canine companions.
According to the American Skin Association, about 85 percent of the U.S. population is allergic to poison ivy, and 10 to 15 percent are extremely allergic and can have severe reactions. Despite the temptation some might have to touch the plant to see how it feels, Johnson advises against it. “It’s unpleasant if you do have a reaction,” he said.
Despite the common knowledge that poison ivy is toxic, it’s still possible to unwittingly touch the plants. “As soon as you come into contact with poison ivy, you need to immediately and thoroughly wash the affected area with soap and water,” explained Cecile Davis, a medical practitioner of 35 years. “If the oil is on your hands and you then touch your legs, the oil will continue to spread. The soap helps break up the urushiol.” She also recommended taking an antihistamine to treat pain and itching.
“There is a degree of sensitivity that each person has to an allergic reaction,” said Davis. “Those with a lower degree of sensitivity could have a small rash, while those with higher sensitivities could sustain fluid-filled blisters that turn into third-degree burns.” A fever could also be possible in severe cases. “Any time there is an allergic reaction, your body triggers antigens,” explained Davis. “As part of the inflammatory process, the body temperature goes up. In cases with extreme sensitivity, it is possible to sustain a fever.”
It is dangerous to burn poison ivy since its ash and smoke contains the allergic properties. According to Wilderness Medicine of Utah, an organization specializing in wilderness first responder courses, it is possible for a person to get a severe reaction in their lungs, nasal cavity, throat or eyes which would require immediate professional care.