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Here They Come The Poison Plants Of Summer

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Here They Come: The Poison Plants Of Summer

Spring has sprung, and summer is around the corner. You know the signs. Dad fires up the grill, oil companies raise gas prices, and kids come down with itchy rashes. The poison plants are back, and this summer they promise to send two million Americans to the doctor's office.

The three most common culprits--poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac--are native to the Americas. European explorers hadn't seen them before. Sometime around 1600, Captain John Smith recorded his encounter when he wrote, "The poisoned weed is much in shape like our English ivy, but being touched, causeth redness, itching, and lastly, blisters."

Pocahontas could have warned him. After all, Native Americans knew all about poison ivy. Indian warriors coated their arrow tips with it, and medicine men rubbed the leaves on infections in an effort to break open the swollen skin.

Colonial doctors paid attention. They jumped on the poison ivy bandwagon and expanded its use to the treatment of herpes, eczema, arthritis, warts, ringworm, and even rattlesnake bites. Use of poison sap in early American medicine was so widespread that poison oak was listed in the Pharmacopoeia of the U.S. as an official therapeutic agent.

Today we know the rash of poison plants is a contact dermatitis. Upon first exposure, most folks develop antibodies against the sap. On subsequent exposure, the antibodies attack the sap, resulting in the bothersome rash. The few who don't make antibodies, won't get the rash. But they should still watch out--antibody production can begin anytime, making a fool out of poor Uncle Pete a day or two after he rubs poison ivy up and down his arm just to prove he ain't allergic.

So what is poison sap anyway? The offending chemical is urushiol, a yellowish oil inside the leaves, stems, and roots of the poison plants. Because it's inside the plant, undisturbed leaves won't harm you. However, if the leaves are chewed by insects, stepped upon, or otherwise damaged, the oil leaks onto the plant's surface where it can come into contact with human or animal skin. As it turns out, only humans and closely-related primates break out with the rash. Dogs, cats, cattle, and sheep are not affected, but they can convey the oil to their human keepers. Clothing and tools also spread the oil, and since the sap remains allergenic for years, unsuspecting spring gardeners can get the rash from last season's gloves.

If you come into contact with poison sap, or at the first sign of rash, you should take a long shower with plenty of soap and water. Avoid immersing in a bath because the oil can float, spreading to other parts of your body. Washing the oil from your skin will stop further spread. Rash may still appear in new areas, but this is because areas exposed to smaller amounts of sap take longer to break out.

Once you have the rash, it stays awhile. The skin has to repair itself, a process taking 10-14 days. All you can do in the meantime is treat the symptoms. With mild cases, over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream and oral antihistamines--like Benadryl--is the best combination to control inflammation and itching. If you have widespread rash, face involvement, or infected blisters, it's time to see your doctor. You might need steroid pills, a shot, or an antibiotic.

As always, prevention is best. All three poison plants have compound leaves with three leaflets. My grandma used to say, "Leaves of three? You let them be!" and she was right. The leaves are glossy green with a smooth surface. In the fall, the foliage may turn orange or scarlet. Poison ivy is a stout weedy vine that often climbs trees. Poison oak is larger and more shrub-like. Poison sumac grows in swampy areas and can reach up to twenty feet in height.

There is a medicine that prevents the rash by providing a barrier on the surface of exposed skin. IvyBlock (bentoquatam) is available over the counter and approved for age six and up. It should be applied 15 minutes before exposure and reapplied every 4 hours for continued protection.

So get out there and enjoy the Spring. Grill your burger. Fill your tank. Take a ride in the country. But when you get there, remember what my grandma said. Otherwise, you might end up in the waiting room, scratching your sores with those other two million Americans.

Mike Patrick Jr, MD is an American Pediatrician
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BONUS : Heroes

In today's society like in the past, kids have heroes. This is a good thing. However, in modern society it seems the process of selecting heroes has become rather muddled or confused. Fame should not necessarily make a person a hero. We have experienced this from both sides: first as parents of two sons who chose heroes while growing up, and now with two sons who have distinguished themselves as outstanding athletes who are often the object of hero worship.

Please hang in here with us on this one so there is no misinterpretation of what we are attempting to say with this article. We do believe that both our sons are worthy heroes. Both are moral and admirable people with a strong sense of family. It is just alarming to see how so many people have selected them. Many children have been taught to or at least allowed to select their heroes/role models based upon nothing more than skill at a game. Few of these kids know much about their heroes beyond this particular skill. If children had been taught some criteria or standards for selecting role models, it would be different.

Allow us to illustrate with a personal example. Barbara's Father, Dick Matthews, died suddenly last week. His five grandchildren delivered the eulogy at the funeral. It was obvious to all in attendance that "Grandpa Dick" was a hero to all five. As they spoke of him through their tears, they all mentioned his hero status in their eyes and used words like loyal, dedicated to his wife, hard-working, honest, a man whose word was his bond, as well as describing a fun Grandpa who always had a smile a mile wide.

Dick Matthews was quite a fellow. Nobody could outwork him outside his home. He built houses for a living but he also ran a 120-acre farm and did odd jobs on the side as was needed for extra money. If necessary, I'm certain he would have taken a night job to provide for his family and he did all of his work cheerfully, and with a bounce of purpose in his step. Inside their home it was a different story. In his house, Dick was the king and Maxine, his loving wife of 56 years, waited upon him hand an foot. It was not a "modern" romance but rather one from a previous generation and it worked beautifully for them. Dick earned a living and Maxine kept up the home.

Then, ten years ago, tragedy struck that loving couple and Maxine was stricken by a severe stroke. Overnight she became in need of around-the-clock care rather than being the caregiver. Without the slightest blink, Dick became that 24-hour, 7 days a week caregiver and on top of it he began to do all of the housework! He did all of the laundry, cooking, cleaning, shopping and everything else Maxine had done for all the years of their partnership of love.

A year ago, while out to breakfast alone with Dick, I was struck by the enormity of the change he had made on behalf of his loving wife and I asked him how he made such an amazing change so suddenly and so cheerfully. His answer really affected me that day and it will always be in my memory. He looked back at me, got tears in his eyes, and then quietly said, "One day 56 years ago, I said 'I do'..."

At his funeral each of his grandkids said that one thing they had learned from Grandpa Dick was to honor commitments! They each got the message.

We as adults need to hold people like Dick Matthews up as heroes to our children! We all know people in our families and in our neighborhoods that are so worthy of being heroes to our kids. We must not be so careless as to think that kids will seek out these remarkable but often quiet people; we need to teach them what a real hero is and point out some in their immediate surroundings. Sure an athlete makes a flashy hero and many are worthy of the status, but let's be careful to teach our kids what makes a person worthy of hero or role model status.

Make tomorrow "Hero Day" in your family and talk about what makes a real hero!

"La Méthode en 10 Jours pour en Finir avec les Crises"
de Daniel LAMBERT

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