A dermatitis reaction due to urushiol can happen through direct contact (touching the bruised/damaged plant directly), indirect contact (touching a glove or piece of clothing with urushiol on it), or inhalation due to the burning of a urushiol-containing plant (Ewing, 2015). When urushiol touches the human skin, tiny chemicals called haptens are secreted into your body and skin-proteins called antigens are activated and adhere to the urushiol chemical (Ewing, 2015). Next, Langerhans cells then adheres to the antigen with the haptens. It will then recognize that the molecule is foreign and send signals to helper T- cells in the body. If it is the first contact of urushiol, the helper T-cell will remember the urushiol for the next contact and not react until the second exposure. The first sensitization of urushiol causes the Langerhans cells with the antigen to migrate to the lymph nodes to present it to the T-lymphocytes for recognition and reaction during the second exposure (Rietschel and Fowler, 2008). If one is exposed again and is allergic, the helper T-cells will release cytokines and chemokines that cause the dermatitis reaction of the skin. Then, they signal macrophages, T-lymphocytes, and more t-helper cells to that all can eliminate the Langerhans cell with the foreign hapten urushiol chemical (Ewing, 2015). Yet, these fighters also kill healthy cells as well. The dermatitis reaction is dependent on the amount of urushiol that has secreted into the bloodstream, how susceptible one is to urushiol, and any past contact with urushiol. It could take up to 24 hours to a week for people who have never been exposed for dermatitis to show up on human skin (Ewing, 2015).
The rash caused by urushiol is non-lethal and only in rare cases has caused death. It can also be caused year-round since urushiol is stored all year, as previously stated. Therefore, it is wise for humans not to touch dead or dried poison ivy plants during the winter months as well. Symptoms caused by urushiol can be alleviated by creams such as calamine lotion, hormones, and steroids now. In the past, different cultures have tried applying anything from crab meat, banana juices, shoe polish, and marshmallows onto the rash (Dickinson et al., 2013). Additionally, acupuncture has also been an option to relieve dermatitis pain.
Besides causing a painfully itchy dermatitis reaction, Urushiol can also serve beneficial purposes. It can serve as a sealant for the plants’ wounds, and thus increases water retention in plants when damaged, and retardation of growth of infectious fungal and bacterial spores (Mullins, 2015). Urushiol was used by Native American tribes and traditional Chinese culture for medical purposes because of its antioxidant, antimicrobial, and antigenic properties (Dickinson et al., 2013). Some also believe in the treatment of osteoarthritis by urushiol to alleviate pain. Though now, the sensitive nature of urushiol to oxidation and polymerization restricts its therapeutic use. Other uses of urushiol include components in face paint, certain types of honey such as poison oak honey, and even erosion-barriers.
In order to prevent dermatitis and remove urushiol-contact from human reach, several methods have been implemented. Different chemicals sprays can be added to lawns and areas to kill poison ivy. Another method of urushiol removal that may be more environmental-friendly are goats. There are several companies that can be hired to bring goats that eat poison ivy and urushiol-containing plants (Dickinson et al., 2013).