The Truths and Myths About Poison Ivy, Poison Oak and Poison Sumac
Formal outdoor activities attract roughly 49.2% of all Americans every year – approximately 43,000,000 people. That does not include being in their own backyard, walking the dog, cutting the lawn, school sports or daily yard activities. One of the lurking dangers for outdoor work or fun is a group of plants that can cause an uncomfortable, painful and itchy rash, varying from minor to severe: Poison Ivy, Poison Oak and Poison Sumac.
What are they, how do they work, where are they found and how to recognize them
Poison Ivy, Poison Oak and Poison Sumac are all part of the genus Toxicodendron. There are multiple species of each, depending on what part of the country you live in.
Poison Ivy: Can grow as a vine or shrub. 3 glossy leaves with smooth or toothed edges. Leaves are reddish in spring, green in summer and yellow orange or red in fall.
Poison Oak: Low shrub in the East, and tall clumps or long vines in the West. Fuzzy green leaves in clusters of 3 are lobed or deeply toothed with rounded tips.
Poison Sumac: Grows as a tall shrub or small tree in bogs or swamps in Northeast, Midwest and Southeast. Each leaf has clusters of 7 to 13 smooth-edged leaflets. Orange in spring, green in summer and yellow, orange or red in fall.
Urushiol, a clear liquid compound in the sap of each of these plants, is the culprit in causing the itching, redness and swelling associated with these three plants. The oil itself is harmless and can only bind to human skin. It can remain toxic for years however, on pets, shoes, bedding, furniture, clothing, gloves and tools, sports equipment, or anything you use outside.
Urushiol must penetrate the skin to cause a reaction, and can depend on the amount of sap, the length of exposure, and the parts of the body exposed (skin can be thicker or thinner depending on the part of the body). It will also depend on your individual sensitivity.
What to do if infected
Immediately upon exposure to Poison Ivy, Oak or Sumac, take a shower using soap and water and thoroughly cleanse the areas that came in contact. Pay special attention to under your nails as the Urushiol can live for quite a while under the nail. You can also wipe the exposed area with rubbing alcohol to further kill the oil on your skin.
Once infected, DO NOT SCRATCH OR PUNCTURE the blisters that can appear. This can cause a severe infection. The itch, rash or blisters will generally disappear in a few weeks. Ask your pharmacist for the best topical treatment to help dry the oozing or weeping that can accompany the rash, and anti-itch creams that will help relieve the discomfort. Further steps you can take are to bathe in either a soothing oatmeal solution or cup of baking soda added to your bath water. Frequent cool compresses also help, and over the counter antihistamines, such as loratadine (Claritin) or diphenhydramine (Benadryl) can also help with severe itching (always check with your physician or pharmacist).
Seek medical attention from a healthcare consultant if you run a fever over 100F, if the rash develops pus, soft, yellow scabs or real tenderness. Also if the rash spreads to a larger portion of your body, and definitely if on your face by your eyes or mouth, or your genitals. Severe cases can be dangerous and make you very sick. If you have difficulty breathing or swallowing, or one or both of your eyes are swollen shut, call 911.
- Learn to recognize the plants and stay clear.
- Wash your pets regularly wearing gloves.
- Wash your garden clothes, gloves and tools frequently.
- Wash your skin immediately if you come into contact with the sap.
- Always wear long sleeves and pants when working outside.
- Stay away from burning brush as that will allow the oil to go airborne and you can catch it that way, topically, but also right into your lungs. Also be careful around lawnmowers and trimmers as that can also send the oil into the air.
Most pets are not sensitive to Urushiol, but the oil can stick to their fur for long periods of time and cause a reaction in anyone who pets them.
Myths surrounding these poisonous plants
- You can catch Poison Ivy by being near the plants. Not true! Direct contact is necessary. However, again beware of smoke from brush fires, planned or not, and things like lawn mowers and trimmers.
- The rash is contagious: Not true! You can only get the infection from direct contact, oil to skin or through the air.
- Scratching the blisters will spread the rash: Not true! You can however cause a nasty infection from scratching them.
- Leaves of three, let them be: Not true! Poison Sumac has clusters of 5-13.
- Dead plants are harmless: Not true! Urushiol oil can stay active on dead plants for years.
- Once allergic, always allergic: Not true! People’s sensitivity changes through time. You can become more or less sensitive.
- If I never had Poison Ivy, I can’t ever get it: Not true! People generally become more sensitized with each contact and can actually become allergic and may react more severely to subsequent exposures.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, approximately 85% of the population will develop some type of reaction to Poison Ivy, Oak or Sumac if exposed. This is the most common allergy in the USA, affecting half the population. While life threatening only if the Urushiol is swallowed or breathed in (when burned), severe cases should be taken seriously, and medical help sought as there can be serious consequences.
Taking control of your own healthcare, advocating for yourself and family members by being informed and educated can prevent unwittingly placing yourself or loved ones in danger from minor to severe exposures, whether Poison Ivy, heat exhaustion, or things far more serious. Summer is a time of relaxation, fun in the sun, and quality family time in the great outdoors. Make it safe as well.