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Lacquerware and poison ivy

This Chinese container is decorated in the traditional style using lacquer.
This Chinese container is decorated in the traditional style using lacquer.

Summer hikes and landscaping can mean that people come into contact with poison ivy. Many people have allergic reactions to contact with this plant. For those who are allergic to poison ivy and related plants, it is important to understand how easily the toxin from the plant can be spread. Reactions to the plant come from contact with the oil from the plant. Oil has tendency to stick to surfaces and rub off unexpectedly. A dog running through a patch of poison ivy can transfer the oil to every surface that the dog comes in contact with. The result is that people can get a poison ivy skin reaction without ever coming in contact with the plant. This can result in concerns and misdiagnosis when a poison ivy rash appears unexpectedly.

As an oil, anything that was in contact with poison ivy plants should be washed with strong detergents or alcohol to break up the oil. Never burn poison ivy. The oil can become volatilized into the smoke causing a reaction to any skin the smoke comes in contact with, including tissues in the lungs.

Traditional Chinese medicine has many topical herbal formulas for treating the skin reaction caused by poison ivy. The pastes, and ointments are all focused on reducing the red irritation and the itch of the poison ivy rash. Books on Chinese herbal medicine do not list poison ivy as a source of skin irritation. Instead the books refer to a condition called “lacquer rash”. Lacquer is a very common way of painting and sealing various decorative and useful items in Chinese culture. The oil resin used for making these objects comes from a tree that is very closely related to poison ivy. Chinese workers had to be very careful with the oils when they were in raw form, due to the nasty skin reactions that could occur when someone is in contact with large quantities of the oil. Once the oil resins have hardened in the form of lacquer, the objects are generally considered safe for skin contact.

The poison ivy plant should be avoided. Even if you are one of those people who does not get a rash from contact with the plant, you could unknowingly spread the oil to others who are sensitive to the plant.