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DR. ROACH: Don't fear the poison ivy

DEAR DR. ROACH: Please help me! I'm being shunned by family and friends because I have poison ivy, and they are afraid they will "catch" it. I've tried to educate them, but they insist I'm contagious. Will you please let people know once and for all (or at least for this season, since some will never believe it) that one has to come into contact with the oil -- whether from the plants, garden tools, pets, clothing, etc. -- in order to get the rash? I'm miserable enough without being told to stay away until the rash is gone. Thanks for your help. -- M.C.

ANSWER: Dear M.C.'s family: Please don't shun M.C. anymore. Poison ivy, along with its cousins poison oak and poison sumac, are in the Toxicodendron (literally "poisonous tree") family. An oily resin in the leaves -- urushiol -- is the allergenic substance. It becomes black and hardens with exposure to air, and if it remains on clothes, pet fur or gardening tools, exposure to the skin can also cause the characteristic red, intensely itchy rash.

The whole body should be gently washed (vigorous scrubbing worsens the skin reaction) with soap and water as soon as possible after exposure to remove any oily resin, especially under the nails. All possibly contaminated clothing and tools should be washed in warm soapy water.

After washing off the urushiol, you certainly are no longer "contagious."

DEAR DR. ROACH: What are the consequences of eating whatever you want while on statins? Many of my friends who take statins brag that they have great cholesterol numbers, while I struggle to keep my numbers in an acceptable range off meds.

P.S.: Most of these friends are overweight; we're all seniors. -- D.M.

ANSWER: There are many risk factors for the development of heart disease (specifically, coronary atherosclerosis -- the kind that causes heart attacks). Cholesterol is a big one, both LDL and HDL cholesterol. Blood pressure is another. But diet and exercise not only affect cholesterol, they have independent effects on the development of heart disease. In comparison, one person who eats well, with little fatty red meat, no trans fats (found in some processed baked and fried goods) and lots of fruits and vegetables will have a lower risk of heart disease than someone who doesn't eat well, all other things being equal.

Statin drugs lower cholesterol and lower risk of heart disease, at least for people at moderate to high risk of heart disease. However, the studies that proved this recommended that everybody eat a healthy diet, and gave half the group a statin and half the group an inactive placebo. Nobody has tested statin plus bad diet against no statin and good diet. A recent study of the Mediterranean diet showed that diet can reduce heart disease risk.

If your diet (and hopefully regular exercise) is keeping your numbers in the acceptable range (for most people, that's less than 200 total, less than 100 LDL, greater than 45 HDL), then I wouldn't recommend statin treatment unless you had some other reason for it, such as a history of heart attack or stroke, and possibly diabetes.

It's also important to remember that a healthy diet reduces cancer and many other diseases. So keep up with your diet and don't listen to your bragging friends. And if you do have to take a statin, keep up your healthy diet for the lowest heart disease risk.