Note: This was originally an email to members of our Learning the Trails beginner trail running program. It is a bit longer than most of our newsletters, but we figured this is information many of our customers could use.
Itches and Bities: Common Outdoor Nuisances Such as Poison oak, Poison Ivy, and Deer Ticks
In the Rochester, NY area we are blessed with an abundance of parks and open spaces. We have access to countless trails and we can find nearly any type of terrain we may be searching for in order to explore, hike or run. Unfortunately, with all this wild area there are a few things that can make your adventures in the woods a little less than pleasant if not down-right miserable. Let’s take a few minutes to learn about and understand those things that we want to avoid and learn what we should do if we do come into contact with them.
Poison Oak and Poison Ivy
Poison ivy and poison oak come in many sizes and colors. You can find little tiny leaves or leaves that are bigger across than your hand. Leaves can be shiny or dull. Colors can be green, red, yellow, brown and really anything in between. They can show themselves as small, individual plants or as long running vines or shrubs. The important thing to remember is that both poison ivy and poison oak come with pointed leaves that are bunched in threes. This is where the common statement “leaves of three, leave them be” comes from.
The harmful ingredient in both poison ivy and poison oak is called Urushiol. This oily compound is present in every part of the plant, from its leaves to its stem, to its roots, flowers and seeds. Any contact with any portion of the plant can leave the plant’s oils on your skin causing an itchy rash within a few hours or as long as three days later.
Both poison ivy and poison oak are very tolerant of a variety of growing conditions. You can find them in both full sun and very shady areas. They are found in marshy swamps, areas of drought and everywhere in between. There are numerous forms of poison ivy and poison oak, and at least one variety can be found in every state in the continental United States. The type that you come into contact with doesn’t really matter. The precautions you should take and the way you treat exposure is the same for each variety.
The best course of action with poison ivy and poison oak is avoidance. When you are out on the trails you should try to stay on the trails. Staying on the trails will help minimize your chances of coming into contact with both poison ivy and oak. When venturing into areas where you may come into contact with poison ivy or poison oak it is best to wear long pants and shirts to avoid skin contact with the plants.
What to do After Contact
If you suspect that you have come into contact with poison ivy or poison oak it is important that you get cleaned up as soon as possible. You want to use cold water to wash any skin that may have come into contact with the plant’s oils. DO NOT USE HOT WATER! Hot water will open the pours on your skin and make you absorb the harmful oils more quickly. Taking a shower is your best bet, but if that is not an option a cold creek can help. In a pinch, you can use bottled water. Cold water is really all most people will need, unless you are prone to very strong allergic reactions.
There are a lot of commercial products designed to wash away the oils, such as Zanfel or Technu, but they are not normally needed if you wash the area quickly. These products won’t hurt you though and if you feel like you must use a commercial product, have at it.
In addition to washing your skin that may come into contact with poison ivy or poison oak you must wash all of your clothing that you were wearing, including your shoes. Take your shoes off outside! You do not want to spread poison ivy or poison oak to your carpeting. It is strongly recommended that you run your clothing through the washer twice to make sure all of the oils are removed. Again, no special detergent is required. Just use your favorite laundry soap and wash your clothes according to the manufacturer’s directions.
After washing your body and your clothes you want to make sure that you thoroughly clean any surface you may have come into contact with. The plant oils can be spread from things like door knobs, faucets and your steering wheel.
Also remember that a common cause of rash is a pet that has been contaminated with poison ivy or poison oak. Cats and dogs are immune to the effects of Urushiol but the oils can be transmitted through their coat. If there is any chance your pet has been playing in poison ivy or poison oak you should give your pet a bath, preferably outside to minimize the risk of contaminating your carpets or furniture.
What to do About a Rash
You’ve tried to avoid poison ivy or oak, but you were unsuccessful and you now have a rash. What should you do?
The good news is that the rash should go away on its own in a couple of weeks. Most cases can be treated right at home. If you have a minor rash you should do the following:
1. Don’t scratch! This may seem impossible, but scratching that itch can cause the skin to break and open you up to serious infection.
2. Try a cold compress. This can help relieve itchiness and reduce swelling.
4. Keep the area clean to help reduce the likelihood of infection.
For some people the reaction to poison ivy or poison oak can become a medical emergency. A medical professional will have additional options for you if you have an extreme reaction. You should call your doctor if any of the following occurs:
Coming into contact with poison ivy or poison oak can turn your outdoor adventure into a nightmare but with a little preparation you can learn to live with these nasty plants.
In recent years the deer tick population has greatly increased in the Rochester, NY area. With the increase in tick population we have seen a considerable increase in tick-borne diseases including Lyme disease. Recently, Powassan virus has been found in New York State and other areas of the Great Lakes region. You can reduce the likelihood of contracting a tick-borne disease by understanding where ticks live, dressing appropriately, using insect repellent, checking yourself for ticks and showering after spending time outdoors.
Where Deer Ticks Live
You will typically find deer ticks in wooded, grassy or bushy areas. If you spend any significant time outdoors you will probably enter a deer tick’s neighborhood at some point. You may also find that ticks hitchhike into your home on your pets.
When deer ticks are ready to feed they assume a position called “questing.” They use their rear legs to hold onto a plant or tall grass about a foot or so off the ground and leave their front legs outstretched waiting for a potential host to brush against them. Once the deer tick finds a suitable host they typically climb upwards looking for a place to feed.
Dressing for the Outdoors
When venturing into areas that are likely to contain deer ticks it is important to dress appropriately. The best idea is to ensure that your legs are fully covered, preferably with light colored clothing. Long pants and knee high socks are a great choice. This will help keep deer ticks off of your skin and make it easier to see them when they try to hitch a ride.
When venturing into deer tick territory you should use an insect repellent containing DEET. DEET has been shown to be nearly 90% effective in repelling deer ticks. Do not use insect repellents on babies under two months old.
Permethrin can be used to treat your clothing, shoes and camping gear. Permethrin is different in that it not only repels insects, it also kills them. A recent study showed that people wearing untreated shoes and socks were more than 73 times more likely to receive a tick bite than someone wearing treated clothes. Permethrin should not be applied directly to your skin.
Using a combination of DEET on your skin and permethrin on your clothing can greatly reduce your risk of being bitten by a deer tick.
Check Yourself and Shower
To avoid carrying deer ticks into your home you should thoroughly check your clothing before heading indoors. Placing your clothing in the dryer for 10-15 minutes on high heat should kill any ticks that remain on your clothing. If you need to wash your clothing, hot water is your best option. Cold water may not be enough to kill any unfound ticks.
Showering after spending time outdoors has been shown to reduce the likelihood of contracting Lyme disease. The shower is also a great opportunity to perform a full body check. Be sure to check in and behind your ears, in your hair, your underarms, inside your elbows, behind your knees and around your waist. A handheld mirror can help you check those hard to see areas.
What to Do If You Find a Deer Tick
As soon as you find a deer tick attached to your body you should remove it with tweezers. Pull it directly away from your skin without twisting. Be sure you remove the deer tick’s mouth completely. Do not try to cover the tick with petroleum jelly or nail polish. Do not try to remove it with anything hot such as a match or lighter. This will cause the tick to puke up the contents of its stomach into your bloodstream and make you more likely to contract an infection. After removing the tick you should wash the bite site with rubbing alcohol. Applying a topical antibiotic such as Neosporin can help reduce your chances of contracting a bacterial infection.
Once the tick has been removed you should be on the lookout for signs of illness such as a rash or fever. Not all tick bites will lead to illness. Your chance on contracting a disease will depend on your location, the type of tick that bit you and how long the tick was attached. The quicker the tick is removed the less likely you are to become ill.
If you develop a rash or fever in the weeks following a potential tick bite you should contact your health care provider immediately. They will likely perform bloodwork to test you for infection.
Poison oak, poison ivy and deer ticks can at a minimum cause an annoyance to those of us that want to go play on the trails. In extreme situations they can cause medical emergencies. But, with a little forethought and proper preparation the risks involved can be greatly eliminated.
Now go outside and play!