Poison Ivy, Oak & Sumac
Everyone knows about the horrible rash poison ivy and poison oak can cause, but what are these plants? They are actually plants that belong to the genus Toxicodendron. Toxicodendron literally translates to "poison tree". They grow in wooded areas all over the United States, with the exception of Alaska, Hawaii, and some parts of Nevada. These plants are sometimes all loosely referred to as "poison ivy," but they are actually three distinct species: poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac.
So, what's so yucky about them?
Well, these poison plants contain oil that causes an allergic skin reaction. The miserable rash they cause is well known to many hikers, horseback riders, campers, and others who enjoy the outdoors. It's not contagious; it's the spread of this oil that is the culprit (more below). The itchy and sometimes painful rash caused by contact with these plants occurs most often in the warmer months, but it is not limited to summer. If you spend time outdoors, get to know what these plants look like and how best to avoid them. Your outdoor time will be much more enjoyable if you also know how to treat the rash if it does occur.
How to recognize these poisonous plants
The saying "Leaves of three, let it be" is often used to describe the poison plants. This is a handy way to recognize poison ivy and poison oak, but it's better to memorize what these plants look like. Not all three-leaved plants are toxic. And some that are toxic have more than three leaves.
Poison Oak has leaves that look like oak leaves, usually with three leaflets but sometimes up to seven leaflets per leaf group. It grows as a vine or a shrub. Poison oak is more common in the western United States, but it is also found in the eastern United States and, rarely, in the Midwest.
Poison Sumac has 7 to 13 leaflets per leaf stem. The leaves have smooth edges and pointed tips. Poison sumac grows as a shrub or small tree. It is found in wooded, swampy areas, such as Florida and parts of other southeastern states, and in wet, wooded areas in the northern United States.
Poison Ivy usually has three broad, spoon-shaped leaves or leaflets ("Leaves of three? Let it be!"), but it can have more. It may grow as a climbing or low, spreading vine that sprawls through grass (more common in the eastern United States) or as a shrub (more common in the northern United States, Canada, and the Great Lakes region).
What causes the rash?
Poison ivy, oak, and sumac all contain oil called urushiol. This oil is not really a poison, but it is made up of chemicals that are powerful allergens (substances that cause an allergic reaction). In half to two-thirds of people, urushiol causes an allergic reaction known as contact dermatitis. The resulting rash consists of swollen, itchy, red bumps and blisters that appear wherever the oil has touched the skin.
Urushiol is present in the stems, leaves, and roots of the poison plants. The only parts of these plants that do not contain the oil are certain parts of the flower (the anther), the pollen, the outermost membrane of the stem and leaves (the epidermis), and a particular kind of tissue found inside the stem (xylem). For all practical purposes, though, it's best to consider all parts of these plants as able to cause the rash.
Urushiol is released when the epidermis of the plant is broken. Even the tiniest scrape or break in this membrane can release the oil. These plants are poisonous at all times of the year but are even more so in spring and summer, when the leaves are tender and bruise easily.
You don't have to touch these plants directly to get the rash
Urushiol is a sticky, long-lasting substance that can easily remain on your clothing and shoes. Dogs, cats, and horses can carry the oil on their coats and transfer it to your skin long after you've left the woods. Especially under dry conditions, the oil can retain its effects for a very long time. In one case, museum workers handling a 100-year-old specimen developed a rash from the oil! Smoke from the burning of these plants can also cause the rash and can affect the nose, throat, eyes, and lungs.
How and when does the rash appear?
The rash from poison ivy, oak, and sumac usually appears within 24 to 48 hours after contact with the plant. In some cases, though, the rash may not appear for a few days afterward. The worst stage of the rash usually occurs within a week of exposure. Depending on the severity, the rash may take 2 or 3 weeks to heal.
The rash from these plants occurs most often on parts of the body where the skin is thinnest, like the wrists, ankles, neck, and face. At first the area may appear reddish, and you may feel a mild stinging or itching. Red bumps then appear, often in streaks or patches where you rubbed against the plant. Itching can become severe before the bumps turn into blisters. These may ooze a clear, yellowish fluid. The blisters begin to crust over and dry up as the rash subsides.
Can the Rash Spread?
The rash from poison plants is not "contagious." Only the oil itself can be spread to other parts of the body or to another person. Sometimes, after the rash has developed in one place on your body, it may seem to suddenly appear elsewhere. This fact leads many people to think that the rash can be spread by scratching or bathing, or by touching another person's rash. This is not true, however. The rash may take days to appear after contact with the plant, and your skin varies in thickness over different parts of your body. This is why all of the affected areas may not show the rash at the same time.
In fact, keeping the area of the rash clean with soap and water is a good way to help it heal faster. Neither the blisters themselves nor the fluid they secrete contain urushiol. Touching them will not spread the rash to a new location on either your own body or someone else, unless urushiol is present on the skin. Still, it is best to avoid touching or scratching the rash.
How Do I Treat the Rash?
The best way to treat the rash is to catch it early. At the very first sign of a rash, or if you think that you have come in contact with one of these plants, wash the affected area with plain soap and cool water as soon as possible. Keep the area clean, cool, and dry as much as possible. And above all, don't scratch!
Most cases of poison ivy, oak, and sumac may be extremely uncomfortable but do not pose a serious health threat. Several types of over-the-counter medications creams and ointments, such as Benadryl or hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion, can provide relief and soothe the itching. You can also soothe the itching by applying cool compresses or soaking the area in cool water with baking soda. You may be looking for a natural topical
While not the norm, just be aware that some highly allergic individuals may develop a severe reaction to poison ivy, oak, or sumac. If the rash is severe or covers a large area of your body or is near your eyes, you'd be well advised to seek medical help from your doctor or urgent care. The allergens in the plant oil may cause a systemic reaction resulting in some of the following symptoms along with a severe rash:
- Fever, headache, or nausea
- Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
- Extremely sore or painful rash that interferes with normal activity
- Swollen lymph nodes in your neck, under your arms, or in the groin
- Blisters that continue to ooze after a few weeks
Avoidance is the best way to prevent the effects of the poison plants. The first step is to learn what they look like at all seasons of the year in the area where you live. Pay attention to the plants around you when you are outside, especially in wooded or overgrown areas.
After walking in the woods:
- Wash your clothing in warm water
- Scrub off your boots or shoes
- Remember, the oil from these plants can remain on surfaces for days or weeks
If you live in a rural area, you may be able to control the growth of poison ivy, oak, and sumac with livestock grazing. Goats and cows can eat these plants with no ill effects. However, grazing needs to continue for several years to be effective.
If you find one of these plants in your yard, remove it with care:
- Wear long pants and sleeves,
- Wear heavy work gloves
- Wear closed shoes or boots
- Pull or dig out the entire plant, making sure to get as much of the root as possible
- Avoid touching any part of the plant
- Keep children and pets out of the area until you are finished
- Never burn the plants
- Dispose of in a heavy, tightly sealed plastic lawn bag
If you think a pet has been near an area with poison ivy, oak, or sumac, bathe the animal in warm, soapy water. Wear long sleeves and rubber gloves to avoid getting the oil on your skin.
Natural Herbal Relief
While many people find relief with over-the-counter medications and creams, there are a growing number of people looking for more natural topical remedies. There are also several important herbs (anti-histamine properties and allergy-immune support) that when taken orally can systemically help the body soothe the allergic reaction that has occurred. When an allergy or allergic reaction is present, the immune system is challenged.
Feel Better the Natural Way!
The Naturally Botanicals Team