Poison Sumac, Poison Ivy, or Poison Oak itching is not always the first symptom to occur when one comes in contact with these poisonous plants.
For many of my patients, the first realization that they might have come in contact with poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac, occurs when they consult with me about a rash that they have developed. These vicious weeds are the single most common cause of allergic reactions in the United States.
Furthermore, a rash from these weeds develops when the skin comes in contact with an oil called urushiol. Urushiol is found in the sap of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. It oozes forth from any broken part of the plant, including the roots, stems, and leaves. After exposure to air, urushiol turns brownish-black, making it easier to spot.
- Poison Ivy generally climbs trees and mimics tree branches as a vine with short rootlets and dark fibers south of the Great Lakes or close to the ground as a small shrub-up to a foot tall, north of the Great Lakes. It is legendary for its cluster of three almond-shaped leaves that are highly variable; some are hairless while others are slightly hairy amid glossy or dull luster, and some are toothed, smooth-edged or lobed.
- Distinctively look for an end leaflet that is pointed with a longer stalk than the other two leaflets. This plant grows just about anywhere; open woods, rocky areas, fields, or it may also be in your garden or along your patio walkway. Beware the small, white, and hard drooping clusters of berries. Resilient and tough, winter months merely camouflage its virulent oils leaving an innocent small stem exposed from the ground. The Spring is the best time to spot Poison Ivy when the leaves are reddish but take caution it’s the time when they are at the most potent as well.
- Poison oak is universally found as a shrub with thick and sturdy stems, although it can also emerge as a vine in some areas. The leaves resemble oak leaves, arise in clusters of threes, and are usually shiny and green. In the Spring, the leaves are light bright green with white green flowers clustered on the stems. During the Summer months leaves often contain yellow-green, pink, or reddish hues with clusters of small white or tan berries and transform again during the Fall season when the leaves turn russet brown or bright red while the fruit becomes darker.
- Poison Sumac is found in wet areas or marshes and partly-wooded swamps usually on wet ground or standing water as a shrub or small tree, 6-20 feet tall with compound leaves that have 7-13 pointed, smoothed-edged leaflets that distinctively angle slightly upwards from the leaf stem. The stems, twigs, and buds are hairless with dark smooth bark and speckled with dark spots. Its berries are similar to Poison Ivy – small, white, and hard drooping clusters. In the fall the leaves are ecstatically pleasing to the eye with their brilliant red hues but don’t be tempted to add them to your Thanksgiving bouquets.
Coming in contact with urushiol can occur in three ways:
- Direct contact – touching the sap of the toxic plant.
- Indirect contact – touching something to which urushiol has spread. The oil can stick to clothing, animal hair or skin, sports equipment, and any object that has come into contact with any broken part of the plant.
- Contact with airborne urushiol particles – which can occur from the burning of the poisonous plants. This can cause a rash if and when it comes in contact with your skin.
Rashes occurring from any one of these plants can affect almost any part of your body, especially where your skin is most thin. Redness and swelling occur first, usually followed by blisters and severe itching. Blister fluid from these rashes does not spread the rash. In a couple of days, the blisters may become crusted and begin to scale. The poison sumac rash traditionally takes 10 days or longer to heal.
The best advice I can offer to help prevent the misery of a poison sumac rash is – to STAY AWAY. The best way to know which plants to avoid is by learning to identify these poisonous plants. Their appearance may change slightly through the seasons, but they remain toxic year-round. A key feature in identifying poison ivy and poison oak is in the leaves: they consistently come in threes. Therefore, the popular saying “leaves of three, beware of me,” is a good rule of thumb to follow.
Follow these simple rules if you think you have been exposed to poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac:
- First, wash the exposed area(s) immediately with running water. The water should keep the urushiol (oo-roo-shee-ohl) from spreading to other parts of your body. Do not use soap at this point. Soap can pick up some of the urushiol and spread it to other parts of your body.
- Take a regular shower with soap and warm water within 30 minutes of being exposed. Make sure you have already cleansed the exposed area with running water before using soap.
- Remove and wash your clothing as soon as possible. Don’t wait and do not do a full load of laundry with the clothing you think has been exposed to the poisonous plant. You can transfer the urushiol to rugs or furniture if you’re not careful.
- Make sure you clean any other item(s) (like camping equipment, fishing gear, etc.) that may have come in contact with the oil.
- You can relieve the itching of mild rashes by taking cool showers and applying over-the-counter products like calamine lotion or Burrow’s solution. Equally important is soaking in a lukewarm bath with an oatmeal or baking soda solution can be used to ease itching and dry oozing blisters.
There are 4 solutions you can mix to make a paste and spread it over the affected poison sumac area(s);
•Vinegar and Baking Soda;
• Cornstarch and Water;
• Salt and Water – this will sting but will relieve the itch;
• Apple cider vinegar and water.
• Aloe reduces blistering and also accelerates healing of rashes;
• Catnip juice, which can be taken from its leaves, has anti-inflammatory properties;
• Plantain reduces itch and stops the spread of the rash.
• Mix a teaspoon of Goldenseal, in a powdered form, with a pint of water and spread it over the affected area. Other ways to use Goldenseal, drink it in a tea or taking it in a capsule.
• Try Jewel weed. Rub it on the affected poison sumac areas to reduce the itch and dry blisters.
• Spread Oatmeal on affected skin – mixed with boiling water – cooled down to lukewarm temperatures is a handy remedy. In addition soaking in a hot tub of Oatmeal can also be used in most of the body was exposed. Oatmeal coupled with a sock and swirling it around in the tub of water. Leave the coating of Oatmeal on your skin after the bath will ease the symptoms dramatically. I always recommend you consult a Board-Certified Dermatologist if you know you have been exposed to one of these weeds. A dermatologist can properly diagnose your rash and may prescribe cortisone or other medicines that can prevent blisters from forming.
Leaves of Three – Let Them Be
Dr. Abrams is a licensed Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine who is A.O.B.D. Board Certified in Dermatology and Dermatological Surgery. He is noted as being one of the top dermatological surgeons in the Sarasota, Florida community. You can learn more about Dr. Abrams by visiting his website at http://www.abramsderm.com
Bradley Abrams, D.O. “Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, And Poison Sumac Rashes – Advice from A Sarasota Florida Dermatologist.” Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, And Poison Sumac Rashes – Advice from A Sarasota Florida