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Poison Ivy, Poison Oak & Poison Sumac: What You Need to Know

poison ivy plantEver heard the saying “leaves of three, let it be”?

Contrary to common belief, this saying does not always apply to all poison ivy, oak and sumac. (What?!? Tell me more.)

While poison ivy and poison oak usually have leaves in groups of 3, they can sometimes have more. Poison sumac can have up to 13 leaves grouped together – so it’s important to keep all identifying traits in mind when on the lookout.

To straighten things out, here’s a quick guide on how to identify each plant, as well as some poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac facts so you’ll be prepared in case you run into them.

How can I tell if a plant is poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac?

Poison IvyPoison Ivy:

  • Usually has three leaves, one typically larger than the other two
  • Most stems do not have thorns
  • Grows as a low or climbing vine
  • Poison ivy can be found in most parts of the contiguous 48 states

Poison Oak:Poison Oak

  • Leaves usually grow in groups of three, but can have groups up to seven
  • Oftentimes its leaves resemble oak leaves
  • The top of the leaves are a darker green than the underside and the undersides are covered with hair
  • Grows on a vine or shrub
  • Poison oak is most common in the western U.S. but can also be found in the east. Less common in the Midwest.

Poison SumacPoison Sumac:

  • Stem contains 7 to 13 leaves arranged in pairs with one on the end
  • Grows as a woody shrub or small tree
  • Has drooping clusters of green berries. (Non-poisonous sumac has red, upright berry clusters.)
  • Poison sumac is most common in wet, swampy areas.

What happens if I come into contact with one of these poisonous plants?

About 85% of us are allergic to urushiol (you-ROO-shee-all), the oil that is emitted by these plants. If you are in the majority, you’ll get a rash within 12 to 72 hours of exposure to the plant.

A rash from poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac looks like patches or streaks of red, raised blisters. If the rash comes close to your eyes, if you have any swelling or a more serious reaction to the rash, see a doctor immediately.

What should I do if I think I have a poison ivy, oak, or sumac rash?

  • Wash your skin immediately with soap
  • Wash your clothes right away as well (and any pets who may have gotten into the poisonous plants too if they were with you)
  • Resist the urge to scratch
  • Try over the counter treatments like calamine lotion or cortisone anti-itch cream to soothe the itchiness

What are some of the best ways to treat the rash at home?

Unfortunately, you will need to wait for the rash to run its course as there is no treatment that speeds up the rash duration. However, you can take steps to soothe your itchy skin in the meantime with these at-home remedies:

  • Applying calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream
  • Pressing a wet washcloth on the rash area
  • Bathing in an oatmeal bath

Is poison ivy, oak or sumac contagious?

This question gets a lot of debate!  The rash you get after contact with the poisonous plant is not contagious; what’s contagious is the oil (called “urushiol”) which oftentimes lingers on your skin, clothes, car, or other items.

If someone else or your pet still has this oil on their skin or fur, they can rub it off on you. This is why it’s important to rinse off or to give your 4-legged furry friend a bath after possible contact – don’t forget to wear gloves! The good news is Fido likely won’t get the rash since their fur usually protects them from the poisonous oils.

How do I get rid of a poison ivy or oak plant near my house?

The safest way to get rid of the plants is to hire a professional to remove them completely. Urishol remains active on dead plants (and in the smoke if you burn the plant) so removal of these plants can be tricky, especially if you are super-sensitive to it. A professional will have the proper protective gear and know the best protocols for complete removal and preventative measures to ensure it doesn’t grow back.

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