My happy place is trail-walking in the woods. I relish the beauty of the trees and plants, the aroma of the vegetation and the sweet sounds of singing birds and chirping insects. I emerge from the woods with a clear head, extra energy and feeling the pressures of life lifted.

Recently, I learned there is an actual term for this – “forest bathing” or “shinrin-yoku,” as practiced in Japan. This bathing involves no water but rather soaking in the wonders of nature. Studies have proven several benefits of walking in the woods including cancer-prevention, improved sleep,  lowered blood pressure, reduced stress, depression relief, and improved memory and cognitive skills.

As you plan your hike in an Indiana state park or othe wooded area, there are some hazards to recognize. Preparation is important in order to prevent exposure to these risks. The major culprits are poison ivy, poison sumac, poison hemlock and stinging nettle.

The most common problem is one familiar to everyone – poison ivy. It may look like a vine or a shrub with slightly shiny, dark-green leaves usually found in groups of three. The leaves turn red in the fall. Touching them may result in an itchy, painful, red, swollen rash. If you come into contact with it, immediately wash the exposed skin with soap and water.

If you are in the woods, wash thoroughly in a running stream. Affected clothing should be laundered several times before wearing. Gardening tools, sporting equipment and pets can also be sources of contamination. Avoid burning poison ivy because the fumes can be toxic. The fluid from blisters is not contagious. The rash may last up to three weeks. Avoid scratching, as this can lead to infection. Bathing without soap may provide relief along with hydrocortisone cream, calamine lotion, antihistamines or prescription medicine.

The three other Indiana plants to know are perhaps less familiar.

Poison sumac is rare but can be found in swampy areas. It has yellowish flowers that turn into yellow or white berries and has red stems. (Ornamental sumac found along roadsides is not poisonous.) Contact with the poisonous variety may produce symptoms similar to those of poison ivy.

Poison hemlock looks like a wild carrot or giant parsley with small, purple spotted white flowers and grows along roads, streams, trails, ditches and waste areas. It is highly toxic when ingested. If you touch it, thoroughly wash your hands before touching your mouth or eating. Lastly, stinging nettle is common in the woods, on the banks of rivers and in waste areas. The plant is covered in small hairs that inject toxin causing itchy welts. Wash with soap and water to remove the nettle hairs and apply a paste of baking soda and water. (Contrary to popular belief, poison oak is not found in Indiana.)

American naturalist John Burroughs once said, “I go to nature to be soothed and healed and to have my senses put together.”

Spending time in nature is essential for physical, emotional and mental health. Delight in your trek through the woods. Just be mindful of your surroundings and practice prevention.

By Carol Dixon, Contributing Writer. 

Read more interesting stories in IndyBOOMER Magazine.

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