Avoid the Itch: Poison Ivy, Oak & Sumac

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By Hallie Hudson, PharmD, TTS

With nice weather approaching, you may find yourself camping, hiking, gardening, or just spending more time outdoors. It’s important that you try to steer clear of certain plants like poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac. These plants contain an oily sap called urushiol, which causes an itching, blistering rash that can be very bothersome.

In order to avoid a potential unpleasant rash from one of these plants, it’s important that you are able to recognize these poisonous plants to help prevent exposure.

 

POISON IVY

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  • Each poison ivy leaf has 3 glossy leaflets that may be jagged or smooth

  • Appear as small shrubs or vines

  • Leaves change color with the seasons (green in summer; reddish in the spring; yellow, orange, or red in the fall)

 

POISON OAK

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  • Leaves are fuzzy green

  • Most grow in clusters of 3, but some types have 5, 7, or even 9 leaves per cluster

  • Many have yellow or white berries

 

 

POISON SUMAC

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  • Each leaf has clusters of 7 to 13 smooth-edged leaflets arranged in pairs

  • Leaves change colors with the seasons (green in summer; orange in the spring; yellow, orange, or red in the fall)

  • Many have spots that resemble blotches of black paint

  • Many have clusters of whitish-green fruits, yellow-greenish flowers, or yellow-white berries

 

How can I avoid these poisonous plants?

The best precaution to take is to simply avoid contact with these plants. But if you can’t, then here are some important measures to take:

  • Wear protective clothing that covers the skin (even when it’s warm outside)

    • Gloves, boots, long sleeve shirts, long pants, and protective eye-wear

  • Clean garden tools and gloves with alcohol or soap and water regularly if you are working around poison ivy, oak, or sumac

    • Urushiol from these plants can live on these surfaces for up to 5 years

  • Wash your clothes as soon as you return from being outside

    • Rinse washing machine thoroughly to ensure traces of urushiol are removed

  • DO NOT burn any part of these poisonous plant

    • Particles in the air can get onto your skin and you can develop a rash

    • Urushiol can get into the smoke and then into your lungs resulting in a severe allergic reaction

  • Make sure children do not swallow these plants as this can harmful or potentially fatal when ingested

    • If this does happen, contact their physician and take them to the emergency room immediately

What should I do if I come in contact with one of these poisonous plants?

  • Take a shower initially (do not take a bath as this can spread the urushiol)

  • Wash affected skin with plain soap and water

  • Rinse with lots of water if no soap is available

  • No need to scrub vigorously or use harsh soaps

  • You can also use Tecnu® scrub to remove the oils and help stop the spreading

  • Wash all of your clothing separately from other clothing

  • Wash everything that may have contacted the plant: gardening tools, golf clubs, pet leash or fur

  • Cut fingernails and clean under nails to eliminate any plant oil

What happens if I develop a rash?

Your body will start to absorb urushiol within just a few minutes of contact. A rash usually develops quickly, within hours to two days, after exposure to urushiol. The rash is not contagious and does not spread. It might seem to spread, but certain parts of the body have a delayed reaction and the rash develops later. In addition, the rash can continue to appear on new parts of the body when they touch the urushiol or if there is urushiol is on your hands and you touch other parts of the body.

What does the rash look like?

At first, the rash is red, streaky, itchy, and may have swelling. This could potentially progress into a more severe reaction with intense itching, inflammation, blisters, and reddening of the skin.

Although you may be able to self-diagnose, checking with your doctor to confirm that the reaction is from poison ivy, oak, or sumac, is always a good idea.

How long will the rash last?

The rash typically lasts for a couple of weeks but can continue for a month or so.

When should I see a doctor?

You should see your doctor or get emergency medical care right away if you experience any of the following:

  • A fever over 100°F

  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing

  • Severe swelling (especially around eyelids)

  • Rash is tender, has small yellow scabs, or has pus

  • Rash that spreads to your eyes, mouth, or genital area

  • Rash that covers more than one-fourth of the skin area

  • Rash doesn’t get better within a couple of weeks

Can poison ivy, oak, or sumac cause an allergic reaction for my pets?

Although your pet isn’t allergic to poison ivy, oak, or sumac, the urushiol from these plants can stick to their fur. If you pet or hold your dog or cat, you could potentially get a rash. If you think your pet may have brushed up against any one of these plants, put on some rubber gloves and give them a bath with plenty of shampoo and water.

What can I do to help relieve the symptoms of this rash?

  • Try not to scratch the rash as this can make it worse and potentially cause an infection

  • Cool compresses or showers can help relieve itching (hot showers can make it worse)

  • A short, lukewarm bath containing colloidal oatmeal (Aveeno®) may help relieve itching

  • Apply calamine lotion to help with itching

  • Ivy-Dry Super® spray (benzoyl alcohol, camphor, menthol) may provide temporary relief of itching

  • Avoid topical antihistamines (i.e., topical Benadryl® or diphenhydramine) and antibiotics (i.e., Neosporin®)

    • These do not seem to help and could make the reaction worse

  • Hydrocortisone 1% cream can be used to reduce weeping from lesions, relieve itching, and reduce inflammation

    • Do not use on face or genitalia

  • Oral Benadryl® (diphenhydramine) may not relieve much itching; however, it can help you sleep at night if the rash is bothersome

Now what?

Stop in the pharmacy today to consult with the pharmacist about over-the-counter products that can provide symptom relief for your rash. Remember, if your rash worsens, then contact your doctor or get emergency medical care, if needed.

Hallie Hudson, PharmD