Poison Ivy, Poison Oak and Poison Sumac

1
Overview

poison ivy
Poison ivy grows nearly everywhere in the US except California, Hawaii and Alaska. (c) flickr user Cygnus921

Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac all have a chemical irritant called urushiol that's secreted from the leaves or stalks. Most of us are allergic and react to urushiol with itching and a rash.

When it comes to poison ivy or poison oak, prevention is really the best medicine. However, my gut tells me you probably didn't look this up to see how to avoid poison ivy as much as how to treat it, so let's start there. Click through for tips on how to avoid it next time.

2
Symptoms and Treatment

poison ivy rash
An itchy, blistering rash is the hallmark of poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. (c) Belinda Hankins Miller

The good news is: the rash and itching will go away without any treatment. The bad news is: it will probably take a couple of weeks for it to go away. Treatment of poison ivy, oak and sumac is all about comfort. You want to relieve the itching and inflammation.

  • Call 911 if you have any trouble breathing. This is especially true if you inhale smoke from burning poison ivy.
  • Call the doctor if the rash is on or around your eyes, covers a large part of your body, or seems to be infected (fever, swelling or oozing).

Here are tips to relieve the itching and rash. Some of these work better than others, so it's really a personal choice, and maybe a little trial and error:

  • Cold compresses on the rash for 15-20 minutes, several times per day. Don't put ice directly on the skin or leave cold packs on for too long: you can get frostbite from a cold pack if you're not careful.
  • Use calamine lotion, topical antihistamine or hydrocortisone cream to reduce itching.
  • Taking oral antihistamines such as Benedryl (diphenhydramine) should help reduce itching.

Here are some home remedies and alternative medicine treatments that might help with the itching:

  • Make a paste with baking soda and water. Apply it on the rash.
  • Aloe vera applied directly on the rash. If you have a plant, cut it open and rub the slippery part right on the skin. You can also try topical products with aloe included.
  • Take a cool bath.
  • Apply tea tree oil. I've had good luck with tea tree oil to reduce itching on my dog.

Prevention is the best treatment for poison ivy. Knowledge is power. The way to prevent poison ivy, oak or sumac is to know what you're looking for and how to avoid it.

3
Avoiding Exposure

poison ivy, oak and sumac
Clockwise from top left: poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. (c) Sam Fraser-Smith, Ed Bierman, Rusty Clark

Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac all produce the toxin urushiol. More than half the population is allergic to this stuff, which will cause itching and a blistering rash if it gets on the skin.

Poison Ivy and Poison Oak

Poison oak is found on the West Coast and in the southeastern U.S. Poison ivy is found pretty much everywhere except California, Hawaii and Alaska. Both of these come in a few different varieties and can grow as shrubs or vines. They typically like sunshine.

There is an old rhyme that helps identify these pesky plants: "Leaves of three, let it be!"

Look for the combination of three leaves shown in these pictures. Poison oak will sometimes have a reddish coloration, either on the edges of the leaf or throughout the whole thing. They might have little yellow or white berries.

Poison Sumac

Poison sumac grows in the swamps and wetlands of the eastern U.S. and doesn't follow the "leaves of three" rule that helps identify poison ivy and poison oak. There will be many more than three leaves in a row on this plant, up to 13.

Poison sumac grows as a shrub or a small tree. This variety produces the most urushiol in all parts of the plant, not just the leaves.

Cover Up

Besides avoiding it completely (learn to recognize the version of poison ivy, oak or sumac that grows where you live), the best prevention is to cover your skin. It doesn't take much of the urushiol to cause itching and blisters; in fact, you only need to brush up against the plant to get a reaction.

By covering your skin, you lessen the risk of exposure. However, you must wash clothing after contact with the plant, or you run the risk of secondary exposure to the oil. It also doesn't take much urushiol to cause irritation, and it can be spread from clothing to skin (even clothing to furniture to skin).

Dangerous Dogs

Pets don't usually get a reaction to urushiol — either because they're immune, or because their fur protects the skin from contact. Your dog can transfer the oil onto you, however, so Fido will need a bath if he's been rummaging around in the poison ivy bush. After you bathe the dog, bathe yourself.

Some people recommend washing with cold water to keep the urushiol from absorbing into your skin. That's an interesting theory, but I'm not sure it really matters.

One more thing: you can't catch a poison ivy reaction. Once the oil is gone, the threat is gone. The reaction is an allergy to the oil. The irritation, itching and rash are not contagious. Some folks say you have about 30 minutes to wash up after an exposure to avoid the reaction.

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