This is the season when Americans take to woods, hills and fields in search of pleasure. For 500,000 of these Americans, however, the excursion with Mother Nature is going to be a very painful experience. For, shortly thereafter, these unfortunates will be busily scratching one of North America's most persistent itches, poison ivy.
Before the year is out, the itching blisters of poison ivy and its close relatives, poison sumac and poison oak, will have extracted $9 million in hospitalization, doctors' fees and drugs from the American pocketbook, to say nothing of the days of misery which cannot be salved at any cost.
Almost nobody is immune to poison ivy; sensitivity is only heightened by repeated infections. It is dangerous all year round and attempts to destroy the plant have so far met with the same success achieved by projects aimed at putting an end to juvenile delinquency. You wipe it out in one place and it springs up in another.
The few effective killers also kill any other foliage they touch and may poison children who innocently nibble the leaves. It can also be said that the ivy's not for burning. Many a gardener has carefully raked the ivy into a neat pile, put it to the torch and then acquired a particularly nasty case from the poison-laden smoke.
Even individuals who never go near poison ivy become victims. You can get poisoned by petting a dog that has run through an ivy patch. The sap clings generously but invisibly to the dog's coat. You can even get ivy itch while changing a flat tire. If your wheels have touched the ivy the tire may carry the "seeds" of the blister and itch.
The only real defense against poison ivy is not to come in contact with it at all. Anyone who can count up to three (unfortunately, children who can't count at all are among the commonest victims) can recognize ivy. Although it takes many forms—climbing vines, trailing shrubs and bushes—its poisonous leaves always come in a cluster of three.
Recognition is part of the battle, but a hunter or bird watcher who spends all his time spotting ivy and avoiding it won't see much else. A few protective devices will help: gloves, boots or high stockings and long sleeves. All protective clothing should be scrubbed with soap and water when removed, for the poisonous sap clings to the gear. Handling it will produce just as itchy a case of poison ivy as if the person had wallowed naked in the stuff. Another protective measure is a compound called Kerodex; when rubbed into the skin it protects against contamination. Immunizing injections, usually of poison ivy extract, may shorten the length of a case; but sometimes they only spread the infection further than simple contact with the plant would.
Poison ivy's incubation period is one to two days. Most cases clear up in one to two weeks, but extremely severe inflammations have been fatal. Once exposed, you can take your pick of some 1,000 remedies—none of which is more than middling effective. Washing the exposed areas with a strong soap and a stiff brush may remove the poisonous fluid, but it also may spread the infection. When blisters appear, preparations like calamine lotion, wet dressings of mild salt solutions, milk of magnesia, Epsom salts or aluminum acetate, while not cures, do soothe the horrible itching.
Two drugs, Prantal Cream and Zotox, show some promise in actually curing poison ivy, but their worth has not yet been fully established.
The best hope of the half a million itchers and scratchers lies in a research project now being conducted by Dr. Charles Dawson and his associates at Columbia University. While others frantically try to kill off poison ivy, Dr. Dawson and his colleagues brew the poison in their laboratory. Their purpose is to isolate the components of the poison so immunization can be developed. Two of the four components are now being tested but no conclusions are in sight.