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How to treat and avoid poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac

Lori Wilson is a Home & Living columnist, as well as a freelance writer in Los Angeles, who after a lifetime of enduring harsh Michigan winters, relishes the warmth year round.

Watch out for poison oak & ivy

The summer is a time for camping, hiking, gardening, and enjoying the outdoors. Unfortunately, this can also become a popular time for poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac outbreaks. Upon your skin touching these plants' oils, a red itchy rash can show up in the form of lines and streaks, or blisters and hives. In order to help prevent breaking out in an annoying rash, keep the following information in mind and enjoy the outdoors!

Avoiding the reaction

It may sound simple, but the best way to prevent getting a poison ivy, oak or sumac rash is basically simple prevention: avoid contact with the plants -- or even ones you think might be the poisonous ones. Learn about these types of plants and how they may look different depending on season, growing conditions, etc.


More prevention tips:

  • Wear full-length pants, long sleeve shirts, socks and fully-closed shoes or boots (no sandals) when there's no sure way to avoid these plants.
  • Thoroughly wash all of your clothes and completely rinse off your shoes after any exposure. The urushiol can hang around and be problematic if it gets on your pet's fur or even on other items around the yard, including kids' toys and gardening tools. "Oil can stay on these types of surfaces for up to five years," says Hammer, who recommends thoroughly washing both pets and other items that may have come into contact with poison plants.
  • Watch out for poison oak & ivyIf you think you may possibly have come into contact with poison oak, ivy or sumac, avoid touching the outside of your clothing and keep your hands away from your body. Even brushing the back of your hand across your forehead can lead to an eye painfully swollen shut.
  • Physically remove the plants when possible, using plastic gloves over cotton gloves (and keep some spare gloves handy).
  • Apply barrier creams or lotions, like Gardener's Armor, which can help prevent the oil from contacting the skin or causing a reaction.
  • Tecnu and Zanfel can help remove the plaint oil from your skin after exposure. (These products are available at the links above, or at pharmacies and outdoor equipment stores.)
  • Never burn poison oak, ivy or sumac -- this can lead to the smoke carrying the urushiol into the air, where you can breathe it in, causing a painful reaction in your throat and lungs.

How to recognize (and avoid) these nasty plants

Poison oak's leaves grow as a vine or shrub and look like oak leaves with three leaflets -- but to confuse matters, they can contain up to seven leaflets per group. This plant is most common in the western United States, but does occasionally pop up on the East Coast as well as the Midwest.


Poison sumac grows like a shrub or small tree and has seven to thirteen leaflets per leaf stem. Its leaves have smooth edges and pointed tips, and the plants are found in swampy areas in the Southeast along with wet, wooded areas in the northern part of the states.


Poison ivy is found throughout the United States except along the west coast. It grows as a climbing or low-spreading vine that sprawls through grass in the eastern US, though in the northern part of the country (as well as Canada and the Great Lakes region) it grows more like a shrub. This plant usually has three broad, pointed leaves or leaflets -- but, like poison oak, it can have more.


Poison ivy changes color with the seasons: red in the springtime, green during the summer, and typical autumnal browns and yellows during the fall.

The rule of three

If you, friends or family are just itching to go hiking or camping, at least be sure that everyone knows how to recognize and avoid poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac. As the saying goes: "Leaves of three, let it be."


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