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How to avoid dangerous plants: Poison oak, poison ivy and poison sumac

Though the great outdoors offers fun family opportunities to camp, hike, explore nature or garden close to home, it also puts your family at risk for exposure to nature’s less pleasant side, namely poison oak, poison ivy and poison sumac. These benign looking plants are leading culprits behind allergic skin reactions in the US, and though not fatal, can cause days of discomfort.

Poison Oak

Poison oak

Poison oak is most common in the Western US, but is found in the Midwest and on the East Coast. Its leaves grow as a vine or shrub and look like oak leaves with three leaflets. However, the plant can contain up to seven leaflets per group.


Poison ivy

Found throughout the US except along the West Coast, poison ivy grows as a climbing or low-spreading vine as well as a shrub, depending on location. You can usually identify poison ivy by its three broad, pointed leaves or leaflets. Additionally, poison ivy changes color with the season, being red in the spring, green during the summer, and brown and yellow during fall.


Poison sumac

Poison sumac grows like a shrub or small tree and has seven to 13 leaflets per leaf stem, with leaves characterized by smooth edges and pointed tips. This plant is usually found in the swampy areas in the Southeast and wet, wooded areas in the Northern states.


Recognizing the symptoms

After contact with the offending plants, symptoms can develop within 30 minutes to five days after exposure. Symptoms can last 10 days to three weeks. The resulting skin reaction is due to a colorless, odorless resin called urushiol, which is basically the plants’ oils. If you aren’t savvy on your plant identification, you may exposed to poison oak, poison ivy or poison sumac and not even know it.



Itchy red rash of small bumps or larger raised areas.
Red streaks or overall redness where skin and plant made contact.
Oozing blisters filled with fluid.



You can reduce your risk of exposure to poison oak, poison ivy and poison sumac by staying vigilant of your surroundings. Stay away from wooded or shrubby areas when hiking or camping. Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts, socks and fully closed footwear. Apply barrier creams or lotions before you head outdoors. Consider soaps made to remove plant oils. Wash your clothing in hot water. Remove plants from your yard (wearing thick gloves). Never burn the plants since it can force urushiol into the air.



If you do happen to develop a rash or blisters, cool baths or compresses, calamine lotion, and oatmeal baths can help increase your comfort. Talk to your doctor if your symptoms worsen or for further advice on managing the symptoms.


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