If you spend time outdoors, chances are you have been bothered by poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac at some point. Most people are sensitive to the plant’s oily sap. The sap is in the root, stems, leaves and fruit of these plants. If it gets on your skin, it causes a blistering skin rash. The rash can range from mild to severe, depending on how much sap gets on your skin and how sensitive you are to it. Problems can also happen if the plants are burned. Airborne sap-coated soot can get into the eyes, nose, throat, and respiratory system.
The best way to avoid the rash is to learn what the plants look like and stay away from them. If you come into contact with the plants, wash your skin and clothing right away. If you develop a rash, ask your pharmacist about over-the-counter medicines. For severe rashes, see your doctor.
- Poison Ivy: Found throughout the United States except for Alaska, Hawaii, and parts of the West Coast. Can grow as a vine or small shrub trailing along the ground or climbing on low plants, trees, and poles. Each leaf has three glossy leaflets, with smooth or toothed edges. Leaves are reddish in spring, green in summer, and yellow, orange, or red in fall. May have greenish-white flowers and whitish-yellow berries.
- Poison Oak: Grows as a low shrub in the Eastern and Southern United States, and in tall clumps or long vines on the Pacific Coast. Fuzzy green leaves in clusters of three are lobed or deeply toothed with rounded tips. May have yellow-white berries.
- Poison Sumac: Grows as a tall shrub or small tree in bogs or swamps in the Northeast, Midwest, and parts of the Southeast. Each leaf has clusters of seven to 13 smooth-edged leaflets. Leaves are orange in spring, green in summer, and yellow, orange, or red in fall. May have yellow-greenish flowers and whitish-green fruits hang in loose clusters.
- Poison Hemlock: Grows like a medium-height bush with fern-like leaves and small white clusters of flowers that form an umbrella shape. Hemlock has smooth stems, as opposed to Queen Anne’s lace which is not poisonous and has hairy stems.
- Giant Hogweed: Plants typically grow to taller than 8′. The leaves are unevenly lobed. Giant hogweed has green, hollow stems with purple blotches. The flowers are white clusters that can be more than two feet across.
Tips for Prevention
- Learn what poison ivy, oak, and sumac plants look like so you can avoid them (watch this video).
- Wash your garden tools and gloves regularly. If you think you may be working around poison ivy, wear long sleeves, long pants tucked into boots, and impermeable gloves.
- Wash your pet if it may have brushed up against poison ivy, oak, or sumac. Use pet shampoo and water while wearing rubber gloves, such as dishwashing gloves. Most pets are not sensitive to poison ivy, but the oil can stick to their fur and cause a reaction in someone who pets them.
- Wash your skin in soap and cool water as soon as possible if you come in contact with a poisonous plant. The sooner you cleanse the skin, the greater the chance that you can remove the plant oil or help prevent further spread.
More on poisonous plants
- National Institutes of Health
- US Food and Drug Administration
- American Academy of Dermatology
- US Fish and Wildlife Service
Content courtesy: FDA & NIH