Basic Information About Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac

Basic Information About Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac

Poison ivy, oak and sumac are three of the most common poisonous plants that we can encounter on a hiking or camping trip.  While direct contact with the oils from these plants can produce severe rashes, blisters and persistent itching and burning for weeks, people are just as susceptible from indirect contact as well.  In fact, more people are at risk of indirect exposure because the main compound in the oil, urushiol, can adhere to various surfaces for long periods of time.


Learn Plant Identification

The first thing to learn is what each of the three plants look like in order to be able to spot them and avoid coming into contact in the first place.  Poison ivy has three leaves that are attached to small stems that branch out from the larger stem.  The leaves tend to have jagged edges and turn from green to red in the fall.  The lower stems on the vine may also have a hairy appearance. 

Poison oak also comes in sets of threes, but they are not part of a vine plant, rather a sprout that sticks up vertically from the ground.  The leaves are also hairy on the front and back, and they closely resemble oak leaves. 

Poison sumac is actually a shrub that has leaves with 7-13 non-jagged points on each one.  They also produce bunches of small, white berries.  Sumac tends to be located in moist, swampy areas, and they are not as widespread as poison ivy or oak.


What to do if Exposed

The first step is to isolate clothing, boots, equipment or other items that may have been cross-contaminated.  You will want to thoroughly clean them in order to remove any residue that could be inadvertently passed on to others.  The next step is to clean the skin as quickly and thoroughly as possible in order to remove as much of the oil as possible. 

There are differing opinions as to what methods work best, but rubbing alcohol as well as dish or hand soap are popular options.  However, try not to use bar soap, or discard it after use because some of the oily residue can remain and spread to others.

Once the skin is washed, put on some antihistamine cream to help soothe the itching, and consider covering the affected area.  Frequently wash, dry and reapply the cream a few times a day, and be prepared to do this for a few weeks until the rash and blisters disappear.  There are also dozens of remedies, ointments and other topical medications that you can use to minimize discomfort and hopefully speed up the healing process.  Oatmeal baths and calamine lotion are also excellent options for soothing burning and itching skin. 

Minimizing cross-contamination, keeping the affected area as clean and dry as possible and being patient as the rash runs its course are the most important things to do when exposed.  However, avoidance is the best way to prevent exposure in the first place.  Make sure that you scout out your site, be careful where you set up camp as well as where you walk and chances are that you can avoid coming into contact with these plants whenever possible.