UMEM Educational Pearls

Poison ivy, oak, and sumac (Toxicodendron sp) causes a highly puritic, allergic contact dermatitits (ACD) that affects between 10 and 50 million in the US every year. It is a significant occupational hazard as well a scourge for outdoor enthusiasts.

Toxicodendron species contain oleoresins, known as Urushiol compound, secreted by all parts of the plant. Contact with the oil usually occurs by brushing against or direct handling of the plant or contaminated items. This toxin triggers a type IV delayed hypersensitivity reaction in approximately 75% of the population. Within 12-24 hours an erythematous, often linear, vesicular rash develops but new lesions can occur up to 2 weeks later.

There is no ideal treatment for ACD induced by Toxicodendron species. Avoidance and barrier protection are the best strategies. Recommended medications include antihistamines, topical preparations, and systemic steroids. However, steroids require a 2-3 week course to prevent recrudescence of the rash and are not without undesirable side affects.

Zanfel, an OTC granular polyethlene paste, removes urushiol by binding with it to create an aggregate cluster that can be washed away with water. It is highly effective, providing rapid relief even as a sole agent but requires multiple initial applications and is expensive. Mean Green hand scrub has similar ingredients and is claimed to bond urushiol also. Excessive scrathing and abrasive scrubs can cause secondary cellulitis requiring antibiotics.