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Poisonous Plants :: Ivy, Oak & Sumac

Summer is upon us and for many kids in North America that means getting back in touch with the great outdoors. Whether you’re going camping for a week or just doing a day hike, there’s some really important safety and health info you need to know before you head out. While Mother Nature means well, she did give certain plants you’ll find in the woods natural defense mechanisms that may actually harm you. Read on to get the facts about poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac – three plants you’ll want to be aware of the next time you find yourself in the forest.


Leaves Of Three, Let Them Be!

You may have heard this warning rhyme before. It’s about poison ivy, a plant that can cause an itchy rash on your skin. But did you know that poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac are three different types of vegetation that all contain the same rash-causing substance?


The substance we’re talking about it called urushiol. It’s a colorless, ordorless oil (also called resin) that’s contained in the leaves of all three toxic plants.


Different Plants, Different IDs

Poison ivy, oak and sumac are mainly found outdoors in wooded areas, but you need to be careful not to come in contact with it in other places, either. It may even be growing in your own backyard! Since the green leaves of poisonous plants blend right in with other types of vegetation, it’s possible to sit down right in the middle of a patch of poison ivy and not even know it’s there – until later, of course, when the itching starts.


It’s not good enough to just know what one type of poison ivy looks like. The fact of the matter is, poison ivy comes in several different strains or types, and it may even look different depending on what time of the year it is.


When Plants Attack

Of course, no poison ivy plant is going to jump up and grab you. If you get “attacked” by poison ivy, it’s likely your own fault (not intentionally, of course). The way the plants get their poison on your skin is they release urushiol when they’re “injured” – meaning when they get bumped, torn or brushed up against. Once the toxic resin has been released from the leaves of the plant it can easily get on your skin – and that’s where the trouble starts. You may be able to tell if you’ve been in contact with poison plant by looking at the leaves of the plant – which may appear shiny after releasing the urushiol – or by checking your own skin for black spots of resin.


Not only can you get a bad reaction to poisonous plants by touching them, you can also react to the resin someone else has got on their skin. Urushiol can be easily transferred from one person to another. You can even pick it up by touching anything that’s come in contact with it, including your dog that likes to roam the woods. And if someone tries to burn the plants to clear brush in the woods and you inhale the smoke you may get a dangerous internal reaction from breathing in the toxic resin.


Allergic Reaction

Urushiol is considered an allergen because it causes an allergic reaction, which materializes on your skin and in your body as a rash and sometimes swelling. Not everyone will get a reaction to the toxin in poison ivy but about 60% to 80% of people will.


This reaction can appear within hours of touching the plant or as late as five days later. Typically, your skin will get red and swollen and blisters will appear. It's itchy, too. After a few days, the blisters may become crusty and start to flake off. It takes a week or two to heal.


Check With Your Doctor

It's a good idea to pay a visit to your doctor if you have any kind of rash, especially if you have a fever, too. If your rash was caused by poison ivy or a similar plant, the doctor may prescribe cool showers and calamine lotion. In more severe cases, a liquid or pill medicine called an antihistamine may be needed to get the itching and redness down and under control. A steroid, which is another kind of medicine, may be prescribed to you to apply directly to the rash or take as a pill or in liquid form.


Poison Prevention

The best way to make sure you don’t react to poison ivy, oak or sumac is to avoid coming into contact with any of them in the first place. Learn to identify poison ivy, oak and sumac so you can steer clear of them. (Be especially careful, if the leaves look shiny.) If you happen to know there’s poison ivy growing in an area that you like to walk through or camp in, wear long sleeves and long pants when you're there.


If you come into contact with urushiol oil, try to wash it off your skin right away. But don't take a bath! If you do, the oil can get in the bath water and spread to other areas of your body. Take a shower instead and be sure to use soap. And if your dog has been out exploring the woods, you might want to give him a shower, too!


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