Have you ever had a skin reaction to a poison plant? If you have, you’re not alone. Over 80% of people develop a rash, sometimes severe, when they touch poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac. If you’re going to spend time outdoors, you should learn how to identify these common plants, especially since they’re not just in the woods. They can be found right in your own backyard!
So what is it about these poison plants that causes problems for most of us? They contain urushiol oil. When you contact one of these plants, the oil gets on your skin. Most people react with an itchy red rash, pimple-like bumps, and blisters. People with severe reactions seek immediate medical help, and may even miss work.
But it can get worse. Smoke from a burning poison plant, if inhaled, can cause severe respiratory problems, requiring urgent professional medical care. Stay away from that smoke.
The best defense against a poison plant is identification through sight, not touch. Avoid exposure through recognition. The old adage “leaves of three, let it be” carries a lot of weight with poison ivy and poison oak. However, poison sumac will have clusters of leaves, from 5 to 13 leaves per cluster. But with all of the variations of these plants and their changing appearance in different seasons, it’s not that simple.
Poison Ivy Plant Pictures
Let’s start with poison ivy, one of the more common plants. The eastern poison ivy grows on a hairy vine that can cling to trees and grow up the trunks. The vine can get several inches thick and become woody. The western poison ivy is more of a free standing plant or small shrub, and survives well in cold northern climates. In spring, the leaves will appear with a bit of a red tint, turning to a glossy green by summer. Some varieties develop white berries in the fall. Leaf identification is tricky. Serrated edges that come to a point are most common. There can be smooth edges. There can be lobes. And the leaves of three can occasionally be five or seven.
Poison Oak Plant Pictures
Poison oak has similar characteristics to poison ivy plants, but is less prevalent. The western poison oak (or Pacific) can grow on a vine. The eastern poison oak is a free standing plant or shrub. There are no berries in the spring, but white berries, or berries with a red tint develop in the fall. The leaves are more wrinkled and tend towards rounded lobes, but not necessarily. There is variability in leaf edges. They can be serrated or smooth. The leaves of three can occasionally be five or seven.
Poison Sumac Plant Pictures
Poison sumac prefers a wet, swampy environment. This woody shrub can grow up to 20 feet tall. It’s leaves are oval, coming to a point at the end. The leaf clusters have 5 to 13 leaves, arranged in pairs, and one at the end of the stem. It can develop white or cream colored berries. There is a beautiful sumac with red berries that is not poisonous.
As you can see, poison plant identification can be difficult due to variability in plant and leaf structure. So, if you think you’ve come into contact with a poison plant, what should you do? Simply put: wash it off, quick! Within 10 minutes, the urushiol oil will bind to the skin, so you’ve got about 10 minutes to do a thorough washing regimen.
Wash with rubbing alcohol or a soap that will attack grease, such as a dish detergent.Rinsing should be done with cold water, over and over and over to remove soap or rubbing alcohol and urushiol oil. Do not rinse with warm water. Do not wipe area with a towel. You’ll only spread the oils. When you think you’re done rinsing and it starts to dry, rinse some more.
If you’re having a severe reaction, or if you have a history of severe reactions, seek professional medical help immediately.
For myself, I have allergic skin reactions when I contact a poison plant. For me, it usually takes me a few days for the itchy rash to show up. Do not scratch, as that will spread the contaminants. Pink calamine lotion will give some relief to the itching. A more expensive clear lotion is available. I have a hard time getting over the skin rash. A couple of times I’ve had a steroid injection to rid myself of a long, itchy outbreak.
When hiking, I tend to cover up. Wear long pants and a long sleeve shirt, and be alert. If you know you’re at risk and you don’t want to cover up, use a preventive product such as Ivy Block. Consider adding Tecnu Outdoor Skin Cleanser to your backpack checklist. You can buy a box of small packets that are perfect for the backpack. This is a great product. No water is needed. Just wipe it off with a cloth.
Even if you’re only on a day hike, you may contact a poison plant. If you don’t carry the original Tecnu Outdoor Skin Cleanser, wash with Tecnu Extreme when you get home. The Extreme product cleans deeper to remove the urushiol oil from your skin, but requires a water rinse. It also contains anti-itch medication. Wash as soon as you can after contact, and hopefully avoid a rash.
One other fact to keep in mind. Urushiol oil can remain active for up to five years.Clothing that contacted a poison plant should be carefully removed and washed separately. If you’re working with tools, they should be washed thoroughly with plenty of water. If you’re not wearing gloves to handle contaminated clothes and tools, do a careful cleaning regimen on your hands.
With a little planning and forethought, poison plants do not need to ruin a hiking trip.Don’t let the memory of your journey be an itchy rash. Study some poison ivy plant pictures, along with poison oak and poison sumac. Know how to properly wash and remove urushiol oil from your skin. Have a plan of action when you’re on the trail.