The Ivy Must DIE

Two weeks ago was the first weekend of spring break. And in fact, not only was it spring break, but after a long bout with allergies and bronchitis, it was the first time all year I'd felt completely healthy. The weather was beautiful, I was on vacation and feeling good, and so, to celebrate, I went outside and worked in the garden. Since I had some watermelon seedlings that were getting too big for their containers, I decided to extend my backyard garden and clear some space for them.

So I got down in the dirt, ripped out roots and vines, clipped the honeysuckle that was climbing down the fence and into the ground, threw out massive amounts of old pecans, killed the occasional nasty larva, and generally had myself a good time.

So far, so good. What I didn't know was that some of those roots and the leafless vines were not, as I assumed, honeysuckle. Nope. They were poison ivy.

Now, I've always been immune to poison ivy. I know that for a fact because once, when I was a kid, I chased my little brother around the school playground with a vine I claimed was poison ivy. It wasn't poison ivy - yeah, I made a lot of sacrifices in order to irritate my brother, but even I wasn't willing or stupid enough to give myself poison ivy - but he believed it, and I found his terror pretty entertaining.

Except, of course, it was poison ivy. His face swelled up beyond recognition and he had to stay home from school, and I got in big trouble. Because, as it turned out, I was immune, and so nobody believed me when I insisted that, although I'd told him it was poison ivy, I hadn't actually thought it was. It was a nasty episode and it understandably took my brother a while to forgive me, but at least I knew I was immune to the stuff.

Except, of course, I wasn't. This, apparently, is how it goes with immunity to poison ivy: You're immune until you aren't anymore. Some people are immune for their whole lives. Some people are immune as kids and not as adults. Some people are immune until they hit a really high dose of the stuff. Some people are immune later in life, even though they were allergic before. Some people are immune, and then for no reason at all, they become allergic. Point being, there's no telling, and being immune doesn't necessarily mean a damn thing.

Nevertheless, in spite of being immune I would've taken precautions in the garden if it had been at all evident that what I was dealing with was poison ivy. But all the usual reminders - "leaflets three, let it be," "berries white, run in fright" and so on - only help if you can see either leaves or berries. There's no way of telling about roots, which is doubly unfortunate because the roots are by far the most poisonous part of the plant.

All of which I figured out about a day or so later, when I started breaking out in a rash. It wasn't too bad to begin with, but after about three days, I was going insane. I tried a couple home remedies - though I drew the line at trying to burn the skin off with bleach - and when I wasn't taking a superhot shower, I was sitting around the house covered in baking soda paste, trying desperately not to scratch. The worst rash was on my right arm, but I had it on both arms, my chin and neck, waist and stomach, and thighs. I went to the doctor and got a corticosteroid shot and oral steroids to suppress my immune system, and all kinds of antihistamines, but that didn't do a whole lot against the itching. Because I couldn't sleep for itching and it was one of the worst cases he'd seen, he also gave me sedatives, which also didn't take away the itch but at least made me not care so much...

This is my arm, day two - not as bad as it got, and it ain't oozing yet, but you get the general idea...

The cats, too, were extraordinarily bitter about the experience because I'd petted them and so the oil was on their fur, which didn't affect them but could've reinfected me (or passed the oil to anyone else who touched them). They had to get bathed, which they, to say the least, did not enjoy, but with poison ivy, everyone gets to be part of the suffering.

That first week - which was spring break - was by far the worst, because not only was the itching bad, but the rash itself looked awful. People stared at me when I went out in public, and I can't say as I blamed them, because I looked leprous. (Especially when the rash on my arm started oozing pus and bleeding spontaneously, which is when I started bandaging it…) It wasn't how I planned to spend my break, but at least I didn't have to deal with work and teaching in addition to the ivy…

But even though it looks a lot better now, and feels a little better, I'm still itching. Waking up every few hours because the calamine lotion or the sedatives have worn off makes me long for the days of my good ol' regular insomnia, where, sure, I couldn't sleep, but at least I didn't also have to entertain fantasies of steel-brushing my skin off… The doctor tells me poison ivy takes about two weeks to heal, and I need to stop scratching (yeah, right), but in the meantime, two and a half weeks after the original infection, I'm still either sitting on my hands going nuts, or dopey with sedatives. (I did discover that my prescription painkillers seem to stop the itching, so that's my drug of choice at the moment.) Because the ivy's all dried up and I suspect that the itching is at least halfway due to the damage done to the skin by scratching, baking soda and calamine no longer offer the relief they once did...

Meanwhile, the ivy roots are still in the backyard, because I won't touch them and you can't burn them. My partner has offered to collect them and dump them in a trash bag, but I'm going to insist that he gets a full-body condom before doing so, because I don't want to see him in this kind of misery either. He did spray the area with Round-Up, because environmentalism is all well and good but these vines need to DIE.

And the watermelons for which I went through all this in the first place? They died about three days after they were planted. So aside from a few scary pictures, I don't even have anything to show for this whole nasty process.

I did, however, learn one lesson that will stay with me for the rest of my life. From here on in, over spring break, I am getting the hell out of town.


Poison Ivy

Remedies: Personally, what worked best for me was baking soda paste (mix baking soda with enough water to make a paste, slather on affected areas). It creates quite a mess because it drops off as it dries, but it took my itch away for hours at a time. Superhot showers also worked well, though my doctor told me this wasn't a good idea in the long term because it irritates the skin and can delay the healing process. After a certain point, though, you just don't give a damn about what will happen in the future so long as the itching stops now... I didn't have the guts (or foolhardiness, whichever) to try bleach; I hear it's a really bad idea, but some people claim it works wonders. The old standby, Calamine Lotion (or its new variant, Caladryl, with topical antihistamines), works pretty well, and doesn't that smell just remind you of childhood? OK, so it probably reminds you of childhood chicken pox, but still... I also used Hydrocortisone Cream once the worst had passed, especially on my face, since slathering it with pink Calamine would only have made me look more like a freak. (Actually, Calamine lotion now comes in clear, but that just seems wrong to me.) Antihistamines helped a little; I got prescription antihistamines and also took prescription-strength Zantac, because apparently a lot of stomach-acid reduction medications are in fact antihistamines, which is why things like Pepcid AC actually do help deal with poison ivy. Because it's supposed to be a good herbal treatment, I looked for Jewelweed at my local co-op, but couldn't find any, and I wasn't willing to shell out all those shipping charges to order it online, especially with no guarantee that it would work. My doctor also gave me oral corticosteroids to suppress the immune response (because the basic problem with poison ivy - as with most other allergies - is that your immune system is overreacting), and then, because that didn't help enough, also gave me a corticosteroid shot. The difference between the shot and the pills is that the shot kicks in more quickly, but doesn't have the same long-lasting effectiveness as pills do. However, the long and short of is that, like the common cold, there is no cure for poison ivy. There isn't even a reliable way to treat the itching.

If you feel like reading more, there's a great website on treating poison ivy that includes just about every possible way of treating poison ivy, from prescription medications to the strangest home remedies.

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March 27, 2002

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