Poison ivy becoming bigger, stronger, faster growing

”It actually makes the leaves more poisonous, more allergenic to people,” Dr. Mohan said.
Published: Aug. 19, 2020 at 6:46 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 20, 2020 at 9:13 AM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - A lot of us have been working on gardens, fences, and other big projects during the pandemic. That's re-introducing a lot us to an old nemesis: poison ivy.

"It became significantly more poisonous," Dr. Jacqueline Mohan said. She's a professor at the University of Georgia.

Experts and those buying up the anti-itch cream agree: poison ivy is worse than ever.

“It just kept spreading like wildfire,” Sara Foster said.

Foster went twelve rounds – and spent several weeks – itching from poison ivy.

“I mean I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said.

Foster has a common story: cleaning up the yard during quarantine. But even after wearing work gloves:

”Just a little place showed up on my wrist,” Foster said.

After three visits to the doctor, this was no small bump.”Actually got a steroid shot,” Foster said of her first trip to the doctor. Then it was a round of steroids. “And it didn’t do anything.”

She had poison ivy as a kid, but said it was nowhere near this bad. After she hit a 102° fever, she went looking for answers. So did WVLT. We found Dr. Mohan at the University of Georgia in Athens.

“It’s a real double whammy. More abundant, bigger, and nastier,” Dr. Mohan said.

The UGA plant ecologist and professor explains what nasty really means.

”It actually makes the leaves more poisonous, more allergenic to people,” Dr. Mohan said.

The oil has more of the itchy stuff in it. Dr. Mohan said that’s because of increasing carbon dioxide levels.

”Every year the CO2 level goes up higher than it was the year before,” Dr. Mohan said. She measured the CO2′s Miracle-Gro effect at Duke University. She said tall – so-called canopy – trees grew about 25% faster on average. Poison ivy was much, much faster. It grew 149% faster than in past decades. That means the old adage ‘leaves of three, let it be is harder than ever.

”That’s scary fast,” Dr. Mohan said. “And that’s the average over six continuous years.”

She said that other vines, like kudzu or honeysuckle, also grow much faster. Now she’s studying at Harvard Forest and near Athens. The itch is not just being studied in the lab. Sara met a lot of people suffering… more often.

”I thought ‘wow this is more prevalent than I realized,’” Foster told us after she met several other people this summer suffering from the vine.

Here’s something perhaps even more surprising: scratching the blisters does not spread poison ivy. The Food and Drug Administration says those spots are where you touch poison ivy initially - not from scratching. You can also get it from pets or clothing if the oil is fresh. Burning poison ivy is dangerous. Watch out for it in your brush piles.

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