Wilderness exploration is truly a rejuvenating activity that can be a lot of fun for you, your family and friends. But wilderness is also a place that provides an ecosystem for irritants such as bugs and poisonous plants to flourish. In our earlier article on bug protection, we looked at various protective and preventive measures we can undertake to ensure that insects and creepy crawlers do not spoil your outdoor fun.
In this article, we would focus on protection against another common nemesis you would encounter in the wilderness- poisonous plants. Irrespective of whether you are camping, hiking or backpacking, you need to plan for protection against these plants to avoid any mishaps. This article would help you in doing just that. We will look at how you can identify the three most common types of poisonous plants and how you can protect yourself and your family from them.
Common types of Poisonous Plants
Before we delve into some of the protective measures and tips to follow, let us briefly look at the three most common types of poisonous plants that you can encounter in the wild. All these common poisonous plants have the same chemical irritant – urushiol.
The Poison Ivy is probably the most common type of poisonous plant you can expect to encounter. It is found almost all across the wilderness in the US, with the exception of Hawaii, Alaska and Southwestern deserts. It can grow as a vine (like the Ivy) or as a shrub (commonly referred to as western poison ivy). The shrub can grow up to a height of 6 feet, while the vine can spread up to 120-150 feet on the tree or walls.
The Poison Ivy can most commonly be identified using its leaves (remember the old saying – “Leaves of three, let them be!”). The Poison Ivy plant has compound leaves with a set of three with a large leaf in the center and two small leaves shooting from the sides. The leaf surface is glossy or mildly dull. The color of leaves varies with seasons and climate and can range from green in summer to red, orange or yellow in spring and fall.
You can also sometimes find green-whitish berries and yellowish flowers on poison ivy plants. Poison Ivy plants can also lose leaves, especially in winters and cold conditions. In case the plant has lost leaves, it can be identified through aerial/hairy roots on the stem.
Exposure to a poison ivy resin can lead to unpleasant itching, redness, swelling and severe skin rashes, depending upon the nature and extent of exposure to the plant resin. The rashes can last up to 2-3 weeks but are not contagious. Further skin complications can arise if the rashes or blisters become infected. Serious allergic reactions can cause nausea, swelling of eyes and severe discomfort.
Poison Oak, sometimes also known as oakleaf ivy, is another itchy cousin of poison ivy, but is not as prevalent and found mostly in dry locations which get enough sunlight. It generally grows as a shrub, though it can also look like a vine. The shrub can grow to a size of 3 feet.
Like the poison ivy, a single leaf-set of poison oak plant consists of three leaflets that look like oak tree leaves and hence the name. They may sometimes also be found in groups of five or seven. The middle leaflet has a longer stem with a smaller irregular lobed leaf on each of the two sides. The leaves have a hairy texture. The leaves change color just like poison ivy leaves with reddish green in spring, green in summers and reddish yellow in fall. Poison Oak flowers are whitish and fruit has a tanned texture.
Poison oak resin can lead to similar reactions as the poison ivy – itchy redness followed by swelling, rashes and even blisters.
Poison sumac is another rash-inducing poisonous plant that is more prevalent in moist and swampy areas. It is much more prevalent in Mississippi river basin and other swampy areas of Southeast.
The poison sumac plant is a deciduous shrub and can grow to as tall as 10 feet. The sumac plant has a reddish colored stem which has a bigger width than poison ivy plant. The leaves of this plant occur in sets of 7-13 leaflets and characterized by smooth, glossy texture and elongated V-shaped point.
The poison sumac plant follows a similar lifecycle as the poison ivy and poison oak plants. It has greenish, glossy leaves in summer which turn reddish orange in fall and shed in the winters.
Exposure to poison sumac causes the similar type of reaction in people sensitive to it – itching of skin, burning sensation on the exposed part and rashes that can degenerate into watery blisters. Sumac irritation can sometimes be more severe than that due to poison oak and ivy, so you should act more promptly if you feel you have been exposed to the sumac plant.
For more information on how you can identify these plants, you can check out the poison-ivy.org page on the subject.
In addition to the three most common poisonous plants described above, there are some other plants which are prevalent in specific regions and can be harmful. These include Angel Trumpet, Deadwood, Rosary Pea, Stinging nettles and Aconite (Monkshood). You can refer to The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms guide for more information on various poisonous plants prevalent in the Americas.
Tips for Protection
Now that we have briefly discussed the most common types of poisonous that we would encounter on a camping or backpacking trip, let us look at some of the best ways to keep them at bay. We will first look at some precautionary measures and then look at some commercial and home-made protective solutions we can use.
Follow the following precautionary measures to minimize exposure to poison ivy, poison oak, sumac and other poisonous plants:
- Plan ahead and learn to identify poisonous plants: The best line of defense against your nemesis is to know them. This principle applies perfectly to poisonous plants. Learn to identify them in the field. Depending on the region and climate, you can determine which such plants you can expect to encounter on your trips.
The basic identification traits of poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac are discussed above. Books such as The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms and Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants provide excellent additional information on the common poisonous plants that grow in North America. Then there are smartphone apps such as Edible and Poisonous Plants by Polemics Applications (available on iTunes) that can help you in identifying poisonous plants and seek additional advice. You can also carry an identification flashcard. Some poisonous plant treatment solutions even include such a card in their treatment package.
- Wear proper clothing: To prevent exposure of your skin to the harmful oil from poisonous plants, wear long-sleeved shirts and long trousers. This is especially important if you have mild to severe skin allergies.
If you suspect that your clothes have been exposed to poisonous plant resin, keep them separate from other clothing. And after the trip, do not forget to wash your clothes properly to remove any plant resins and oils that may have stained the clothes. You can use a stain removing laundry bars such as Fels Naptha Laundry Bar and Stain Remover which have been proven to work well.
- Wash your hands and other body parts: If you believe that you have come in contact with any of the above-mentioned poisonous plants, wash your exposed skin – hands and legs with soap and water as soon as you can. This will ensure that the plant oil does not spread and contaminate other body parts. Generally, a normal soap should be sufficient, but if you want you can use a poison ivy protection soap such as Deer Out Poison Ivy Soap and Maries Original Natural Poison Ivy Relief Soap. If you cannot cleanup or do not have soap or water, you can keep some alcohol wipes handy and use them to clean up.
- Carry protective creams and treatments: Irrespective of whether you expect an encounter with poisonous plants or not, having a protective cream and allergic treatment medicine in your first-aid kit is a good idea. The next section lists some of the best over-the-counter options available in the market. In addition, Aloe-Vera gel and calamine lotion are some common skin creams that can help in providing relief from rashes due to exposure to poisonous plants.
- Clean-up your pets: If you are taking your dog with you on the camping and hiking trips, make sure you give them a thorough bath after the excursion. Fur-less and small dogs are more prone to getting in contact with ivy plants. In most cases, dogs do not get affected by the oil secreted by poisonous plants such as poison ivy, they can still transfer the infection to you and others. Moreover, in case your pet shows signs of discomfort or itchiness and tries to chew on the irritation, consult your vet to check for allergic reaction to poisonous plants.
Commercial products for protection
Despite following all the precautionary measures, it is likely that you would face exposure to poisonous plants sometime. So it is a good idea to be prepared and carry preventive and protective treatment solutions in your emergency kit. These treatment options can be classified as pre-contact i.e. solutions that can be applied to avoid infections due to exposure to poison ivy, oak or sumac and post-contact i.e. treatments that can be used after exposure to these plants.
The best pre-contact treatment solutions are listed below:
- IvyX Pre-Contact Solution: Bentoquatam-free pre-contact skin lotion for protection against irritating oils released by Poison Ivy, Poison Oak and Poison Sumac. Aloe-Vera, Witch Hazel and Water are primary ingredients.
- First Aid Only Pac-Kit Pre-Contact Solution: Another popular pre-contact solution that protects the skin from a variety of poisonous plant oils including urushiol.
There are a bunch of post-contact treatments – lotions, wipes, powders and soaps. Some of the best ones are listed below:
- Tecnu Poison Oak Ivy Treatment: The most popular post-contact solution for urushiol protection. Apply to dry skin for two minutes and rinse with cool water or wipe off with a cloth within 2-8 hours of contact. Also available as a scrub cream.
- Zanfel Poison Plants Wash: Popular topical solution for the skin reaction that removes harmful oils and not just treats the symptoms released by poison ivy, poison oak and sumac. Advertised to relieve itching and pain within 30-45 seconds of use.
- Domeboro Soothing Rash Relief Powder: A powdered solution that provides relief against skin rashes caused by poisonous plants, insect bites and allergic skin reactions.
- Living Pure Frankincense 100% Natural Oil: All natural, chemical-free solution that can be used with other carrier oils like coconut oil or with lotions to provide relief from poison ivy and other types of inflammations and rashes.
- Humco Calamine Lotion: Skin protectant lotion that works as a drying agent and provides itch relief.
- Globe pharmacy 1% Hydrocortisone Cream: Standard cortisone-based cream that provides relief from skin irritation, inflammations and rashes.
Quick Remedies and Improvisations
In addition to the protective measures and the commercial products recommended above, there are quite a few home remedies and do-it-yourself solutions that you can try to minimize the irritation caused by exposure to poisonous plants. These post-contact measures have been proven to provide relief, though they may not be as effective as specific creams and lotions. You should, however, apply these remedies only if you do not have any skin punctures or severe blisters.
- Baking Soda Paste: Baking soda paste made by mixing one teaspoon of baking soda in three teaspoons of water can provide immediate relief to swelled area or rashes.
- Oatmeal Paste: Oatmeal and oatmeal paste has long been considered an excellent solution. Make sure you apply a thick layer of mildly hot oatmeal paste on the infected part and let it dry.
- Alcohol Wipes: In absence of full bath or washing with water, any type of alcohol wipes can provide immediate relief to the itchy skin.
- Daily-use gels and rubs: Daily use gels and rubs such as Aloe-Vera Gel and Vicks Vaporub are also popular mechanisms to soothe the burning sensation and minimize the itchiness on infected skins.
- Fruit peels: Some fruit peels such as Orange peels, banana peels, watermelon rands and cucumber pieces have excellent cooling properties that can help reduce the burning sensation and provide relief against skin rashes and itching sensation.
Try out these remedies in case you do not have alternatives available. Do not share any other remedies that you have seen working by commenting below.
Outdoor activities such as camping, backpacking, hiking and wilderness bushcraft are about having unbridled fun close to nature. However, because of the presence of flora and fauna ecosystems for insects and poisonous plants, these activities can degenerate into miserable experiences in no time if not properly planned for.
In this article, we looked at how to avoid encounters with poisonous plants. We looked at how to identify the most common poisonous plants and listed out various protective and preventive measures to ensure that they do not spoil our excursions. We also shared some commercial products that you can add to your travel kit or backpacks to cover for these irritating exposures.
We hope that you would find this article useful in preparing against encounters with poisonous plants. Do let us know your feedback by commenting below. Until next time, stay safe and enjoy the wilderness!