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Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac … Oh My!


Camping, hiking, gardening, playing in the woods — you’re the outdoorsy type. If you love getting into the thick of the outdoors, be careful of getting into the thick of something else: poisonous plants.

Don’t let the word “poison” scare you too much. We’re talking about poison ivy, oak, and sumac — they most likely will not cause any serious or permanent harm.

However, urushiol — an oil found in these plants — can cause itchy, blistering rashes, which are often very uncomfortable. That’s why it’s important to know how to avoid these plants, as well as how to recognize and treat rashes as soon as possible.

Recognize the Plants

The first step toward avoiding rashes? Being able to recognize and avoid the plants.

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How to Avoid Poisonous Plants

Once you’ve identified the plants, you may be able to simply avoid contact with them. But if you can’t quite steer clear, here are a few precautions you can take:

  • Wear gloves, boots, protective eyewear, long sleeves, and long pants — even when it’s hot outside.
  • Wash your clothes immediately after you return from being outside. Then, rinse your washing machine thoroughly to make sure all traces of urushiol have been fully removed.
  • Use an ivy block barrier or lotion containing bentoquatam. These are over-the-counter skin-care products that prevent the skin from absorbing urushiol.
  • Spray unwanted plants with an herbicide (e.g. Roundup). Just be careful to avoid the plants you want to keep.
  • Since urushiol can live on the surface of objects for up to 5 years, clean any tools or gloves that may have come into contact with poison plants with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
  • Do not burn any part of a poisonous plant. You can develop a rash from particles in the air that get onto your skin. Also, urushiol can get into the smoke and make its way into your lungs, potentially causing a severe allergic reaction that makes it difficult to breathe.
  • Poison ivy, oak, and sumac can be harmful — and in some cases, fatal — if ingested. Make sure your children do not swallow these plants. If they do, call their physician or bring them to the emergency room right away.

Look for Signs & Symptoms

Your body starts to absorb urushiol within just a few minutes of contact. However, it can take anywhere from a few hours to a week after contact for symptoms to begin.

In most cases, the symptoms just affect the skin. Common symptoms include:

  • Red rash, which may appear in streaks
  • Hives
  • Itching
  • Swelling
  • Blisters, bumps, or patches, which often form streaks or lines

Once a blister bursts, you may also notice crusty skin.

Although you may be able to self-diagnose, it’s always a good idea to have a physician confirm that you are having a reaction to poison ivy, oak, or sumac. They can help you determine the proper treatment, and make sure that the reaction is actually due to exposure to those plants.

The Plants Got Me — Now What?

The next steps depend on the type and severity of your symptoms, and where the rash occurs.

In general, reactions to poison ivy, oak, or sumac are not serious — just a nuisance. Most rashes go away on their own within 1 to 3 weeks, and don’t require treatment. Using a wet compress, calamine lotion, hydrocortisone cream, or an antihistamine (e.g. Benadryl) may reduce symptoms, such as blistering, itching, and swelling. Contact your physician if the rash does not clear up within a few weeks.

Even though a reaction to poison ivy, oak, or sumac is usually harmless, there are occasionally cases that are more serious.

Call your physician or get emergency medical care right away if you experience:

  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Many rashes or blisters, or a rash that covers most of the body
  • Severe swelling, especially around the eyelids
  • Rash that develops on the face or genitals
  • Much of your skin is itchy, and nothing seems to help
  • The rash is tender, has pus, or has small yellow scabs
  • You have a fever over 100 degrees Fahrenheit

But do not worry about passing the rash on — poison ivy, oak, and sumac rashes are not contagious.

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