When the summer weather beckons you outside to go for a hike, play at the park, or take part in any other outdoor activities, your fun can quickly come to an end after coming into contact with poisonous plants like poison ivy, poison oak, and sumac. Each of these plants can cause an itchy, blistery rash that will cause irritation for several days or even up to a week. That’s because they all contain an incredibly common allergen called urushiol. While it isn’t poison, this oil can easily be transferred to the skin after touching any part of a poisonous plant, and worse yet – it’s an allergy trigger for about 85% of the population. Which means, any type of contact is likely to cause a rash on your skin.
Identifying Poisonous Plants
The first step in protecting yourself and your family from poison oak, poison ivy, and sumac is knowing where to find these plants and what they look like. Some trails and natural areas may offer warnings that poisonous plants are in the area. However, more often you will be left using your nature skills to identify these irritating plants.
Poison ivy is by far the most common poisonous plant in the U.S. It is found in nearly all areas of the United States except Hawaii and Alaska. It may appear in vines or small shrubs and is distinguished by glossy, pointed leaves. Each leaf has three jagged or smooth leaflets, and they change color with the seasons. In summer, they are green and may have small white or yellowish flowers and berries.
You may encounter poison oak in the southern states, as well as on the east and west coast. The fuzzy green leaves of poison oak tend to grow in clusters of 3, but some clusters may contain more leaves depending on the specific plant variety. Poison oak grows in long vines and tall clumps in western states and in low shrubs in the southeast.
Sumac is generally found near bogs and standing water in the northeastern United States and Midwest. Swampy areas in the South may also be surrounded with poison sumac. The broad, waxy leaves of the sumac plant change colors with the seasons and appear in clusters that are arranged in pairs. Leaves may also be spotted with black blotches that look like black paint splatters.
Avoiding plants containing urushiol can be more difficult than you might assume. While you may be savvy enough not to touch these plants directly, you may encounter urushiol oil on gardening tools, pet fur, and other surfaces that have been outside. In fact, urushiol can live on surfaces for up to 5 years, so you should be diligent about washing all clothing and tools in hot water and soap after they’ve been outdoors in areas where poison plants are common.
Pets are not likely to experience an allergic reaction to urushiol, but they can still cause secondary irritation if they come into contact with certain plants. Therefore, you may need to wipe down your pet’s coat or give him a bath after each hike or family camping trip.
Finally, do not ever burn any part of a poison oak, sumac, or poison ivy plant. When burned, urushiol can irritate the skin and get into the lungs, causing a severe allergic reaction that makes it hard to breathe.
Caring for Irritated Skin
Sometimes, it’s impossible to avoid contact with poison ivy and similar plants. When this happens, you will notice an intensely itchy rash, often with blisters that form in a straight line. In these cases, washing the affected area thoroughly is essential—otherwise, the rash can spread quickly. If running water and soap aren’t handy, clean the area with an alcohol wipe from your first aid kit. Anti-itch lotions can reduce irritation, and antihistamine allergy medications can reduce the allergic reaction and manage inflammation. If the rash persists for more than a week or appears to be spreading or becoming infected, schedule a visit to your doctor.
For help managing summer hazards from poisonous plants to food poisoning, you can count on MeMD. We will help you connect with a medical provider anywhere you have an internet connection, so you can always handle unexpected injuries and illnesses.