More than likely you’ve heard the rhyme: “Leaves of three, let it be.” But have you heard of these other two warning rhymes? “Berries white, run in fright” and “Hairy vine, no friend of mine.” They’re all good reminders to spot poisonous plants. Your best defense is prevention: learning how to identify the plants can help you avoid their uncomfortable consequences, but even a slight brush against their leaves can result in a skin irritation. Learn how to identify them, spot symptoms and get treatment for poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac; the sooner you take care of it, the better.
How to Tell the Difference Between Poison Ivy, Poison Oak and Poison Sumac
These poisonous plants are found in nearly every state in the U.S. and grow as a bush or a vine usually in clusters of three ‘leaflets’ (though sometimes in groups of five, seven or nine). Depending on the season, the color of their leaves can range from green to orange and even a dark purplish-red and can grow inconspicuous white flowers in the spring that produce small white blueberry-sized berries that turn red in the late summer (stay clear).
All of these plants produce a rash-inducing oil called Urushiol (pronounced you-ROO-shee-ol) that is toxic to humans but harmless to animals. All parts of the plant (leaflets, stems and roots) contain the sticky, colorless and odorless toxin.
The most tell-tale characteristic of poison ivy is it’s “hairy” vines and its almond shaped leaflets of three. They prefer “disturbed ground” so you’ll most likely find it growing along the edge of your backyard, along paths, up trees and mixed in with landscaping. It is most common in the eastern and midwestern states.
Poison oak is not as common as poison ivy, but two species are found in the U.S.: Eastern Poison Oak and Western Poison Oak. The most common characteristic of poison oak is that the leaf shape resembles an oak leaf although it’s not actually a member of the oak family. Unlike poison ivy, their leaflets have hairs on both sides and may also contain greenish-white or tan berries.
Unless you live in the swamp, it is very unlikely you will ever cross poison sumac in your yard. Poison sumac has opposing rows of 7 to 13 leaflets on each stem, with one leaflet at the end of the stem. It grows as a shrub or tree usually in damp, cool, marshy places.
Symptoms from Urushiol
The oily toxin urushiol is easily transferred from one surface to another and can actually remain potent for years if it’s not thoroughly cleaned. Can you imagine if your dog was exposed and ran through your house! Upon contact with your body, urushiol immediately forms a chemical bond to your skin and causes an almost unstoppable reaction called allergic contact dermatitis. Only a fraction of the population is lucky enough not to have a reaction to this sinister substance, but don’t count on it being you. Approximately 85 percent of the population will develop an allergic reaction if exposed to poison ivy, oak, or sumac, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
Symptoms can take up to 48 hours or even more to show up, so be sure to keep an eye out for these signs (from least serious to most serious):
- itching, often intense
- red blotches that may be raised or flat
- blisters, which may show up in rows where the plant or sap touched you
- swelling of your throat and eyes
- overall swelling of your body
- stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
- sudden wheezing from breathing burning poison ivy (this can become a severe asthma attack).
Treatment for Poison Ivy
- As soon as possible, wash all exposed skin gently with soap and water to remove the plant’s oils. Avoid touching other parts of your body with exposed skin. Remove all clothing and shoes and wash them immediately.
- There are several homemade and over-the-counter skin preparations available for use, including Calamine lotion, Burow’s solution, oatmeal, baking soda, Epsom salts and hydrocortisone cream. All of these treatments are placed directly on the rash to alleviate discomfort and itching.
- Once the oil has been washed off, the rash is not contagious and cannot spread by scratching itchy skin or from oozing blister, but be sure to cover any open sores with clean gauze soaked in baking soda and water solution.
- If the rash spreads to your face, mouth, eyes or genitals or if your symptoms become severe including headache, fever or extreme redness, see your eMedical Urgent Care provider to evaluate your skin rash and determine next steps.
Learn more about our services and how we can treat you by calling our location in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey (908) 464-6700, or Middletown, New Jersey (732) 957-0707. We welcome you to walk in, get your exam and be on your way.