Urushiol: a cautionary tale


I was chasing the sunset up the hill, eager to test out my new camera lenses. The wind on this island is strong enough to keep the greenery at mid-thigh level. Even the trees only grow as tall as my knees. Hidden below the grass I could feel them scratching at my shin skin below my shorts.

The cosmic clouds in purples and reds splayed like tentacles across the sky as the sun got closer and closer to the horizon. The full moon coming up 180 degrees around.

When I got back home to the abandoned school house the orange-pink shin scratches certainly felt a little strange. It wasn’t until days later that the itching began, followed days later by rash and blisters. That old familiar feeling. The one that wakes you up in the night and only feels relief when the blood runs under your fingernails and down your skin.

This small dose of poison oil from some plant in that mid-thigh high jungle awakened something that has been lurking under my skin for a few years now.

It takes three flushes of blisters and over three weeks for the itching to finally subside. At least this time the blisters are mostly only on my shins, some behind the knees, and inner elbows. The itch venom finds its way out through the most vulnerable locations.

I have had exposure to urushiol from poison ivy in Ontario many times. I used to unknowingly walk through it barefoot on my way to the outhouse all summer. Itching blisters on the bottoms of your feet all summer really sucks.

My largest dose of urushiol came from the crescent shaped sleeve hanging below the strange cashew fruit in Costa Rica. I was handed a fruit to experience it’s “strange sensation.” It had kind of numbing effect… and below is where the nut must be. When I bit into it’s outer skin about a mouthful of the oil poured down my chin and onto my hands. At that moment I was warned “I think that part is poisonous or something.”

Cashews must be steamed in order to remove the poison oil that they are encased in. Rubber gloves must be worn and I can’t imagine dealing with the vapourized oils.

It took few days for the itching to come on. The rash and blisters crowded around my mouth, eyes, neck, arms, torso, legs and feet. Antihistamine pills and creams helped for short periods of time. Why histamine why?

The next few sweaty tropical Costa Rican weeks were unbearable. The nightly awakenings mid-clawing to the orgasmic relief of blood and oil mixing on my calves, thighs, groin. Once the oil is released from the skin it spreads. But when the itch is so seductive and the oil is already everywhere, it’s not much of a discouragement.

Beware the urushiol!

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