Preventing and Treating Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac
Summertime often includes activities like gardening, hiking, camping and other outdoor sports. Unfortunately, these activities can often bring the itchy rash of poison ivy, oak or sumac. Before venturing outside for your favorite outdoor activity, remember to keep the following points in mind.
Know what the plants look like, and avoid them.
- Glossy green leaves in groups of three
- May have various leaf shapes
- Grows as a vine or low shrub
- May have yellow-green flowers
- Greenish-white berries with distinctive peeled orange-like markings
- More shrub-like than poison ivy
- Leaves similar to oak leaves
- Underside of leaf always lighter green and covered with hair
- Hanging clusters of greenish or creamy white berries
- Located in uninhabited areas – swampy places
- Small tree five to six feet tall
- Seven to 13 leaflets arranged in pairs, with a single leaflet in the end of the midrib
- Elongated leaves with smooth edges
- Clusters of green berries
After initial contact, a rash normally appears between 12 – 48 hours. Skin first appears red, and then bumps and blisters appear. The rash will itch and swell. At its peak, the blisters break and ooze. Sores then begin to crust over and eventually disappear. The rash is at its worst around five days, and gradually improves over one to two weeks.
Urushiol is the chemical in these plants that causes the allergic reaction with the skin. It is transferred by rubbing or crushing the plant. It can also be carried by smoke from burning poison sumac, which can affect the lungs, throat and nasal passages, along with the skin.
It’s often easy to treat poison ivy, oak, or sumac at home. First, wash the infected area thoroughly with soap and water. If washed within five minutes of exposure, symptoms should not occur. Washing the area five minutes after contact will help prevent spreading to other areas of the body or to other people. A clean stream of water in the woods is an effective substitute to soap and water.
If symptoms do appear, a wet, cold compress of water or Burows solution (liquid aluminum acetate) can help reduce inflammation. Calamine lotion, cool showers or lukewarm baths with oatmeal or baking soda help dry the sores and relieve itching and inflammation.
The best prevention is avoidance! Learn what the plants look like and remember, “Leaves of three, let them be.” Wear long sleeves, pants, or gloves if you are in an area that may contain these plants. Pets that may have been in contact with the plants should be bathed.
When should you see the doctor?
If the rash is severe, on the face, genitals, or covers more than 20 percent of the body, see your primary care physician immediately.