Identifying & Treating Poison Ivy, Poison Oak and Poison Sumac

With summer comes the emergence of beautiful and harmless plants and flowers, but some of these plants aren’t so harmless.  Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac are made of a compound of a colorless, odorless oil that can cause a mild-to-severe skin rash if contact is made with skin.   Hampton Roads and Southeastern Virginia sees its fair share of these three plants; however, they are found throughout the country.  The plants are commonly found in forests, fields, riverbeds and roadsides but they’re also known to pop-up in highly frequented areas like your very own yard and public parks.



Poison Ivy typically grows as a vine or shrub and has pointed leaves that cluster in threes.  It may also have yellow or green flowers, and white to green-yellow berries.

poison-ivyPoison Ivy Photo Credit:


Poison Oak also grows as a vine or shrub and has rounded leaves that cluster in threes.  The leaves often resemble a true Oak Tree leaf.


Poison Oak Photo Credit:

Poison Sumac grows as a shrub or small tree in very wet areas.  Each stem contains seven to 13 leaves arranged in pairs. It has the potential to cause a more severe rash than either poison ivy or poison oak. (Poison Sumac can also be green.)


Poison Oak Photo Credit:

Exposure to even very small amounts of the oil produced by these plants amounts less than a grain of table salt and will lead to the development of a rash in 80%-90% of individuals.  The rash (allergic contact dermatitis) is caused by direct contact with the oil by touching the plants or by indirect contact with the plant oil that may have contaminated a pet’s fur, tools, clothing, or other surfaces and can anywhere from 8-48 hours to appear.  The rash may appear bumpy, streaky, linear or patchy, and it will affect the areas that have come into contact with the oil.

If a rash develops, self-care at home is usually all that is necessary. Wash your skin thoroughly and scrub under your nails.  Wash your clothes and tools and if your pet has come into contact with the plants, wear gloves while you bathe them. Apply cool compresses to the skin, use calamine lotion or take oatmeal baths.  Oral antihistamines can help relieve itching.  If your rash is severe seek medical care.  If you are experiencing an anaphylactic reaction (difficulty breathing, difficulty swallowing, facial swelling or if you’ve been previously exposed and had a severe reaction), go the nearest emergency room or call an ambulance.



Images and sources:,, University of Florida

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