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February 1998

Not-So-Wise Tales

If you think ringworms crawl or chewing poison ivy prevents the itch, you're obviously a fan of medical fiction.

There’s the rub: Here’s one that goes waaaaay back: Eating small pieces of poison ivy leaves will give you immunity to the plant and the nasty rash it causes.

About 400 years ago Captain John Smith noted that he’d seen Indians chewing poison ivy leaves as protection against the rash. Even if that were true, the agony of such a practice would be worse than the typical reaction. Today’s guideline is simple: Avoid the plant. Leaves of three, let it be.

There are several other poison ivy-related myths that need debunking: 1) “Scratching open, watery blisters will spread the rash.” Contact with urushiol, the oily sap of the plant, is the only thing that will cause a skin reaction. To prevent a reaction, immediately wash the area in question with cold water and soap. 2) “Poison ivy isn’t poisonous in the winter.” Urushiol is present throughout the plant, including the roots, and remains active all year. 3) “The super-sensitive need only stand downwind of the plant to suffer its itchy wrath.” Urushiol cannot be carried on the wind but can be transported on particles in smoke if the plant is burned. 4) “Urushiol flows inside the plant, so the leaves or stem must be broken for it to leak out and get on you.” All you have to do is brush against the leaves to come in contact with urushiol and to have a reaction.

Leave me aloe: Aloe vera has no medicinal qualities. True or false.

As far back as 1935, topical applications of aloe vera taken directly from the plant’s leaves were being tested and found to enhance healing. In modern-day research, abrasions treated with ointment containing as little as 5 percent aloe vera healed two to three times faster than those that weren’t treated with anything. Products with concentrations greater than 90 percent can rub out some bacteria, and the moisturizing effect of aloe vera helps burned skin feel better and heal. Aloe is a relatively hardy plant that grows easily in homes. Its leaves can be broken off, stored in a plastic bag and carried in your first-aid kit. Or you can opt for an over-the-counter product; look for one with an aloe concentration of at least 90 percent.

Fit to be fried: To reduce your chances of heat stroke, stay in top physical condition.

At first, this one sounds like it has merit, right? But in reality, those in top condition are actually more likely to suffer heat stroke. Sounds odd, I know, but think about it. Your run-of-the-mill hiker gets tired, starts to feel bad, stops and rests. Highly fit hikers, on the other hand, have a tendency to push harder and go past the point where their bodies can adequately shed the heat being generated. The result is usually an exertional heat stroke. Symptoms include red, hot, wet skin (instead of dry skin) and irrational behavior. Unless rapid cooling is undertaken, as many as eight out of 10 heat stroke patients die. Regardless of your fitness level, prevent heat-related problems by staying well hydrated and by maintaining a comfortable pace with regular rest breaks.

Looks clean to me: Minor cuts and scratches can be safely cleaned in any natural water source.

Don’t be so sure about that. Although many backcountry streams and rivers-especially those at higher elevations-contain little that can infect a wound, some seemingly clean water sources are polluted and can lead to bacterial infections. Warm, still, algae-laden waters are especially ripe with dangerous organisms. Flowing waters, while safer, can harbor a variety of human and/or animal-borne pathogens that would love to get under your skin. It’s better to clean all wounds with water that has been treated with iodine or filtered.

In the tick of time: Ticks are the objects of more than a fair share of misinformation. For instance: Once you find one embedded in your skin, you’re already the recipient of its nasty pathogens.

Estimates on how long a tick must be attached to give you enough germs to cause sickness vary with the disease and species of tick. To transmit Lyme disease, a tick must stay in place and feed for 36 to 48 hours. Ticks that carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever take 6 to 10 hours to pass along germs. If you check yourself immediately after tromping through brush and properly remove all the little buggers, chances are you’ll avoid illness. (See Body Language, May 1997.) Meanwhile, two U.S. drug companies have developed Lyme vaccines. The products will be reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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