Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are the big three when it comes to poisonous plants when you’re out on family outings! All three plants cause rashes with a chemical known as urushiol. After touching the plant, oils from the leaves can be transferred everywhere. This makes it easy to spread the rash to other parts of your body, or even other people, before you’ve even realized you’ve touched a poisonous plant.
Poison ivy is usually found as a vine or shrub growing close to the ground, and it can grow in urban and rural areas throughout much of North America, excluding deserts, Hawaii and Alaska. The plant has leaves arranged in groups of three hence the saying, “leaves of three, leave them be” and can have light-colored berries or small flowers.
Poison oak is very similar to poison ivy, although while poison ivy will typically have leaves with jagged edges, poison oak tends to have leaves with smooth, curved edges, much like actual oak leaves.
Poison sumac is the hardest to recognize of these three, because it tends to just look like a shrub or small tree. Each branch will have about 13 leaves, arranged in pairs. Poison sumac is found mainly in the Southeast United States, along riverbanks and other very wet areas. It has the potential to cause a more severe rash than either poison ivy or poison oak.
Anyone who comes into contact with these plants can develop a rash, and if the rash is severe enough, it can also cause fever, swelling and blisters. Some people might develop an anaphylactic reaction. Those individuals should immediately seek medical care. Once a person has rinsed the poisonous resin from their skin, they can no longer spread the rash.
When you’re out, doctors recommend that you wear protective clothing and try to avoid touching plants you don’t recognize. Doctors also urge people to use pesticides to get rid of the poisonous plants instead of pulling them up or burning them. Burning these plants could cause urushiol particles to become airborne, where they can be inhaled and cause a severe reaction. If in doubt, be sure to consult a board-certified physician.