AKRON, Ohio—Kim Conard knows she's susceptible to the rash-producing, itch-inducing consequences of poison ivy.
So every year she's careful while working in the gardens of her Wadsworth, Ohio, home, wearing gloves, heavy long-sleeved shirts, and long pants. Yet every year the nasty three-leafed menace finds her.
And this year was no different. She's finally recovering from a poison ivy infection that started on her wrist and spread to her ankles and the backs of her knees. The usual over-the-counter remedies didn't help at all. Only a prescription-strength cortisone cream has tamed the outbreak.
"I thought I'd taken all the precautions and somehow it got through," she said. "It's amazing."
It's enough to convince her that the scientists are right - poison ivy is getting more toxic. Research from the United States Department of Agriculture has raised the possibility that global warming - or the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - "is likely to both stimulate the growth of poison ivy and also to increase its toxicity."
The research, though, was done under the controlled conditions of a laboratory, which showed the increased carbon dioxide levels increase photosynthesis, water use efficiency, and growth of poison ivy. It's not clear whether poison ivy in nature responds in the same way to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
However, the researchers said, "this work suggests (poison ivy) will become more abundant and more 'toxic' in the future, potentially affecting global forest dynamics and human health."
Conard believes it.
"My mother used to get it, but nothing like this," she said of her recent bout. "I think it's definitely gotten worse."
Physician Todd Kettering hasn't seen proof of it in the patients he sees at Akron General Medical Center's Center for Family Medicine.
"I've seen these reports on the news," he said. "But clinically, I'm seeing the kinds of cases I normally see. I haven't seen anything more unusual."
Whether poison ivy has grown stronger or not, it needs to be approached the same way - with awareness and caution.
Poison ivy survives on the edges, growing along stream banks, roads, fence rows and woodlands.
"You can almost count on poison ivy growing at the edge of every field within its range," the Web site www.poison-ivy.org says. "And at the edge of every road, and the edge of every forest. And wherever man has bulldozed a stable environment - like a new shopping mall or a housing subdivision.
"In the open field the grass usually wins over time, and in the deep woods the ivy probably can't get enough light. But at the edge of the field, forest, parking lot, or road, the poison ivy wins out."
As the saying goes - "Leaves of three, let it be" - poison ivy is known by its three pointy-tipped leaves, with the middle leaf usually larger than the other two.
The leaves can be dull or glossy. Some leaves may have jagged edges, others may be smooth. And the color changes from spring to summer to fall. The Web site also offers life-sized pictures of poison ivy in its various stages.
You don't have to touch poison ivy to catch it; you just have to touch something that's touched the plant's oil - the fur of a family pet, garden tools, garden gloves, clothes, even golf balls.
If you do touch it, wash with detergent and water immediately. The Ohio State University Extension office suggests using cold water, because warm water might cause the oil to penetrate the skin faster.
Kettering suggests using a laundry detergent. Regular soap, he said, is not stringent enough to wash away the oil.
Washing the oil off may not guarantee avoidance of an outbreak, Kettering said, but it may lessen the severity.
A skin reaction will show itself within 12 to 24 hours of touching the plant oil. And contrary to popular opinion, a poison ivy infection cannot be spread by touching the skin rash, even if it's oozing.
Though some over-the-counter remedies may work for mild cases, medical intervention - such as treatment with steroids or cortisone creams - may be necessary for more severe flare-ups, Kettering said.
"Some people have the false belief that they're not allergic to it," Kettering said. "With poison ivy, the more exposure you have, the more likely you are to have an allergic reaction the next time."
HOW DO YOU CONTROL IT?
The OSU extension offers three ways of controlling poison ivy - pulling it, cutting it and spraying it.
Before pulling it, though, protect yourself by wearing gloves, a long-sleeved shirt and long pants. (Wash clothes and gloves immediately afterward.) Be sure to pull out the entire root, because the ivy will resprout from roots left in the ground.
When poison ivy grows around trees, pulling may be difficult. So cut the vine, then treat it with a weed killer that contains glyphosate (such as Roundup or Ortho's Kleeraway Grass & Weed Killer) or triclopyr (such as Ortho's Brush-B-Gon Poison Ivy Killer). Apply the weed killer to new shoots that will emerge. And one application won't be enough. Repeat spraying when new growth appears.
Sometimes, poison ivy sneaks into gardens, infiltrating your prized plants. In these cases, where you want to avoid collateral damage, apply weed killer to the individual leaves. In particularly close quarters where over-spray could harm other plants, paint the individual leaves with weed killer.
None of this is news to Conard. She's tried it all. And, yet, every year the poison ivy gets her.
"It's a curse of the summer."