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Avoid Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac

Summer is a great time to enjoy outdoor activities like hiking, fishing and camping? But if you're not careful, getting back to nature might mean coming back with a painful, itchy rash from poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac.

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Know How to Recognize Poison Ivy

These three common plants all contain urushiol (oo-ROO-shee-all), an oily substance that causes a rash in almost 9 out of 10 people who come in contact with them.

 

Unless you're one of the lucky few people who isn't sensitive to them, you'd be wise to avoid these summer bummers. And since they seem to grow almost anywhere—woods, streambanks, fencerows, roadsides... even your own backyard—it's best to learn how to recognize them!

  Poison Ivy — "Leaflets three, let it be."
  • Most Poison Ivy has three-parted leaves, and that's the best clue to identifying it. Notice how the leaflet at the end has a longer stalk than the other two. The plant has small yellowish flowers in early summer, and clusters of yellowish-white (poisonous) berries in late summer and fall. Beware: Poison Ivy can take the form of an upright shrub or of a trailing or climbing vine!

Know How to Recognize Poison Oak

Poison Oak is similar to Poison Ivy, occuring as an upright shrub or climbing vine with three-parted leaves. The leaves are blunt (not pointed like Poison Ivy) and have bumpy ridges similar to some oak leaves, which is how Poison Oak got its name.


Know How to Identify Poison Sumac

Poison Sumac only occurs as a large shrub or smallish tree with large leaves made up of 7 to 13 pointed leaflets. Many people consider Poison Sumac to be the nastiest of the three. It only occurs in swamps, bogs or other places where the soil is usually wet or is sometimes flooded.


What to Do If You Touch the Leaves

Even if you're paying attention, you might find yourself brushing up against the leaves of Poison Ivy and friends. Luckily, it may not be too late if you act fast!

 

Remember the oily substance called urushiol that's found in all of these plants? The itchy painful rash occurs when that oil gets on your skin. The best way to prevent the rash, or to keep it from getting too bad, is to remove the oil from your skin. Here's how:

  1. Wash Up! Use lots and lots of lukewarm water to wash the area of skin that touched—or that you think may have touched—the plants. Some people suggest using soap; others think soap may help to spread the oil around your skin. In any case, lots of water is the best bet. Don't scrub hard—you're simply trying to rinse away the oil. 
  2. Swab! Another way to get rid of the oil is to use rubbing alcohol, something your family probably has in the medicine cabinet. Wet a clean cloth or cotton pad with rubbing alcohol and swab your skin—even four or five hours after contact, this can help draw the oil out of your skin! Remember—even though it's called "rubbing" alcohol, scrubbing hard will do more harm than good!
How to Treat an Allergic Rash

If you're unlucky enough to get the allergic rash these plants can cause, there really isn't much good news. The painful itch they bring can range from annoying to unbearable. In rare cases, it can even be dangerous for some allergy-prone people.

 

Though it might feel like the itching will never stop, the good news is that it will. Even left untreated, these rashes will go away by themselves—usually in 2 weeks.

 

In the meantime, about the only thing you can do is try to ease the discomfort by cooling and drying your skin. Here are a few things that help:

  • applying compresses soaked in cool, clean water
  • gently rubbing ice cubes over the blisters
  • soaking in a cool (not hot!) bath or oatmeal bath
  • drying the blisters with a fan
  • applying calamine lotion to dry blisters

Anti-itch creams and lotions contain substances called steroids (STARE-oids) which can cause allergic reactions of their own. Many doctors recommend that you avoid such treatments. If you suspect that your case is a severe one, it's a good idea to see your doctor right away!

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