Poison ivy is a real annoyance. For the barefooted its generally not more of a pain than it is for the shod, since the plant needs to be bruised to release its urushiol, which is the chemical that produces an enhanced allergic reaction in the body, and if you are barefoot you are less likely to bruise it. But it is still an annoyance.
Isn’t there anything that can be done about poison ivy?
I’ve written about poison ivy before, in Poison Ivy and Bare Feet. What is so nefarious about it is that the urushiol oil lasts a long time, so even hiking boots may not be a protection. If you tromp on through a patch, later, when you take your boots off, you can get the oil on your hands and then spread it to the rest of your body.
At least with bare feet you don’t have any sharp edges to bruise the leaves. I’ve actually walked through a large patch of poison ivy barefooted. I was careful to ease my way along (and that’s easier to do barefooted, too, because of enhanced proprioception). That time I didn’t get a reaction.
But even then you cannot be guaranteed that the plants have not been bruised . . . by some previous walker (or animal). So it can still be an annoyance.
I have a problem with it in my yard. There is a creek behind my yard that’s rather wild, and there is poison ivy there. Here, take a look.
You can see the classic “Leaves of three, let it be.” You can see the shiny leaf surface. Yup, that’s it.
The problem I have in my yard is that I keep getting these little seedlings popping up in my yard. Then, when I mow my grass (barefooted of course) I try to spot it, put on latex gloves, and pull it out in advance of my mower. But I inevitably miss some and a cut leaf is really bruised. I’d brush by it and then get these inch-long streaks of the poison ivy blisters.
There is all sorts of folklore about how eating poison ivy can desensitize a person to it. I wrote a bit about this in More Poison Ivy. It is said that Native Americans did it every spring. For instance, this is from “The Toxin Treatment of Dermatitis Venenata”, by Albert Strickler, in a 1921 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association:
The late Wendell Reber related to me that he secured desensitization from poison ivy by chewing the leaves of Rhus toxicodendron; this he did daily during his stay in the Adirondack Mountains, during the summer months. Eye witnesses have told that Indians and other residents of New Mexico habitually eat the leaves of ivy each spring so as to avoid poisoning during the summer.
There are lots of anecdotal stories out there, but most responsible websites advise against it. Getting a reaction in your mouth would be awful. Getting it in your throat could be fatal. I’ve even seen articles that talk about cases in which the oil passed all the way through the body and gave a rash on the way out! Talk about a pain in the ass . . .
However, I kept getting this little lines of rash on my feet, and I finally decided to try the ingestion route. It does seem to be possible, even with peanut allergies. This article, New treatment may offer hope for peanut allergy, discusses how a very slow introduction of the peanut allergen worked even for peanut allergies.
The question for me, though, was how could I try it safely? I may be crazy, but I at least try not to be stupid. I wanted to be as cautious as possible while doing something this crazy.
What I ended up doing was getting some empty pill capsules. I then very carefully cut up poison ivy leaves and inserted them into the capsules. That way I at least got the leave down past my throat, and probably down into my intestine.
By the way, did you notice that, in the above picture, one of the plants only had 2 leaves? Good observational skills—one of them had been harvested and cut up.
I also started very slowly. The first pill had a small 1mm x 3mm sliver. And then I waited for 3 days to see if I noticed any sort of reaction at all.
So from there I kept slowly increasing the size of the leaf portion that went into the capsule, until these days (about 3 months since I started) a dose is about 200mm2.
Has it worked for me? I can’t say it’s been a rousing success.
It seemed as if maybe I was getting fewer rash streaks on my feet. Or sometimes I’d get these itchy spots that didn’t seem to have much of a rash. But it is hard to tell if I was just trying to convince myself (the old placebo effect). Without at least some sort of controlled test I also had no idea whether I’d actually brushed against a cut leaf.
So 5 days ago I deliberately rubbed some poison ivy on my leg. Here’s the result:
I can say that this is actually a much better reaction than my usual, pre-test reaction. Before, I used to get pretty bad pus-filled bumps and a lot of itching. This barely itches at all (touching that spot can get the itching started, but other than that I don’t notice it).
So, it looks like I’ve gotten a fair bit of desensitization, but it is also clear that I am not fully desensitized. It may be that I haven’t done it long enough, or that my dosages are not high enough, or something.
On the bright side, I didn’t kill myself (or severely injure myself, or even annoy myself) in the process.
I’d love to be able to report definitive results, but I don’t have them. So all I can do is tell you what did happen. It’s one more data point for anybody who reads about it.
But I can say that I still have no problem hiking barefoot in the woods and going through poison ivy. Again, bare feet just don’t seem to bruise it much, and I don’t get a reaction from hiking.
It’s just that darn mower blade . . .