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Itching for Relief

Brod, an expert in contact dermatitis and skin diseases obtained in the workplace, agreed.

"Zanfel is no miracle," Brod said. "Zanfel may have a soothing effect on itching and inflammation but cannot wash away the allergen after several days."

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Dermatologists agree that the first line of defense against the rash is prompt use of soap and water. Alexander Fisher, a clinical professor of dermatology at New York University Medical School and author of many articles and books on contact dermatitis, wrote in one of his articles, "The poison ivy antigen enters the skin so rapidly that the oil must be totally removed within 10 minutes of exposure."

He further emphasizes that if early washing is not possible, then it is "worthwhile" to wash within the first half-hour to remove any oil remaining on the skin. After that, he said, and others agree, it's too late to remove the irritant.

Heller disagreed. "It doesn't seem like it would work because you wouldn't think any of the allergen [the urushiol] would still be present days after a person was exposed," he said. "But apparently it is. And apparently the body is still responding to the resin that is still present within the skin . . .

"It's sort of like having a reaction to a bee sting days later with the stinger still in; the reaction would get better if you took the source of the ongoing reaction [the stinger] out."

Heller's research team plans additional company-funded studies on Zanfel later this year.

"We plan to check it out under actual conditions, with people who were exposed while working in their yards," he said.

I'd love to believe that relief may be at hand, but I'm not about to volunteer for a firsthand test.

Taking Cover

While the world waits for a perfect remedy, I do my best to avoid exposure.

Even though I may look ridiculous, I wear long sleeves and pants and put my hair in a ponytail before mowing the lawn -- even in humid 90-degree weather. If I need an indoor break, I change my clothes completely and drop them immediately -- sneakers and all -- into the washer. I scrub my face and arms with plenty of soap and cold water. I keep my poison ivy shears separate from my other gardening tools since the oil is so difficult to wash off. I wear two pairs of disposable vinyl gloves when weeding, and I change the outer pair frequently. I wear the same pair of sneakers until they fall apart in the washer.

I've had no need to conduct a personal experiment with Zanfel since I haven't been hit by my personal plague this season -- at least not yet. But a tube is sitting in my medicine cabinet, waiting, just in case. Maybe I'll find relief with this new product, or maybe it will be another dead end for me. So, until then, how do I save my skin after I'm exposed? I've made up my own remedy and learned to "PACE" myself: pamper, apply lotions, cover my blisters and enjoy the sympathy for a while.

And until some groundbreaking research takes place, sympathy is all I'll get. It's probably just easier to treat the rash than to prevent it. Even the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases is not funding any new research on poison ivy. "There is no known way as of yet to desensitize an individual to this type of reaction," explained Brod.

Other researchers agree.

"As a fellow sufferer, we share the same interest," added Gregory Juckett, an associate professor of family medicine at West Virginia University. "Let me hear of anything new you find."•

Erika Ginsburg is a Washington-area freelance writer.

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