Personal Health

How to Recognize Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac

Been outdoors recently and feeling itchy? You may have come into contact with poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac — the bane of every outdoor adventurer. When the leaves of these plants are bruised or broken, they release an oily, irritating toxin called urushiol. This substance causes an allergic reaction in many people, generally in the form of a red, itchy rash that's sometimes accompanied by bumps, blisters, and/or swelling.

Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac share many physical characteristics, but there are ways to tell them apart. Knowing what to watch out for will help protect you from an unpleasant allergic reaction. Save your skin by learning how to recognize these plants when you're outside.

Poison Ivy

Most poison ivy plants can be identified by their three glossy leaflets that bud from one stem. The plants may also have flowers with a yellow or green tinge, as well as clusters of whitish-green, yellowish, or amber berries. However, the plant looks different depending on the region. Poison ivy grows in a vine throughout the East Coast, Midwest, and South, but looks like a woody shrub in the North. Although it's found all around the continental U.S., you're less likely to find poison ivy on the West Coast.

Poison Oak

Poison oak is most easily recognized by the light-green, hairy undersides of its oval-shaped leaves. The plant grows in the form of a short shrub on the East Coast and in the South, but in vines or tall clumps of leaves in the West. Look for yellowish or greenish flowers and berries that range in color from greenish-yellow to white.

Poison Sumac

The difference between poison and harmless sumac is most noticeable in the berries on the two plants. Poison sumac has clusters of white or light-green berries that sag downward on its branches, while the red berries of harmless sumac sit upright. Also, each stem on the poison sumac plant has a cluster of leaflets with smooth edges, while harmless sumac leaves have jagged edges. During the fall, these leaves turn bright red. Poison sumac may also have yellow-green flowers. You'll find poison sumac in swampy areas of the country, such as the Southeast, as well as in the Northeast and Midwest.

Poison-Plant Rash Care

Rashes that result from contact with the three plants are usually not serious and can be treated easily. A rash won't surface immediately, but it's critical to remove any traces of urushiol as soon as possible. If you've touched one of these poisonous plants, clean your skin with soap and water and use a scrub brush to remove any urushiol that may have gotten under your nails. Also, clean any items that may have touched these plants, including clothes.

A few over-the-counter products usually help clear up a rash. Use calamine lotion to soothe itching or burning, and apply a wet compress to blisters. Some skin products even act as a protective barrier to prevent an allergic reaction.

Rashes are usually mild and clear up within a few days, but seek the help of a medical professional if you're experiencing any of the following symptoms:

  • The rash feels tender to the touch.
  • Pus is oozing from blisters.
  • The itching becomes unbearable or painful.
  • The rash has not cleared up within a week or two.

If these plants are in your backyard, seek professional assistance to safely remove them. Your best bet is to just stay away from any plants that look like they could be poisonous.

Don't ruin your summer! By learning what these three plants look like, you can avoid them and quickly clean yourself if you happen to come into contact with them, freeing your skin from the threat of plant-induced blemishes when you go outdoors to enjoy the warm weather.

Posted in Personal Health

Julia is a freelance journalist specializing in health, tech, lifestyle, and culture reporting. Her work has appeared in People.com, USA Today College, Parents.com, and Healthline, among other publications.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.