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Protect Yourself from Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac
Spending time outdoors is fun. But when you are outside, make sure you know how to protect yourself against poison ivy and its evil cousins, poison oak and poison sumac. Encountering them can turn your pleasant walk in the woods into an itchy, rashy nightmare.
Your first line of defense is being able to recognize poisonous plants. Poison ivy is a vine or shrub that has a stem with a large, pointed leaf at the end and two smaller, pointed leaves on the side (photo). The leaves may have smooth or slightly notched edges. It grows everywhere in the contiguous U.S. except for some desert regions in the Southwest. The color of poison ivy varies from red (spring) to green (summer) to yellow/orange (fall). You may also see greenish-white berries or greenish yellow flowers on poison ivy during the spring and summer.
Poison oak is a shrub approximately 3 feet tall that usually has leaves in groups of three, five or seven. The leaves have a scalloped appearance with rounded tips, and they are green in spring, yellow-green or pink in summer, and yellow to dark brown in the fall. Poison oak is native to the East and West coasts of the U.S. as well as the Southeast.
Poison sumac grows as a tree or tall shrub that has red stems with seven to 13 leaves. The leaves come in pairs with a single leaf at the end, and they are orange in the spring, green in the summer, and red-orange in the fall. Poison sumac is found in humid environments, including the Midwest and Southeast U.S.
To avoid these plants, hike or walk on cleared pathways. If you are camping, check your site before you pitch a tent. When you are in an area where poisonous plants might be present, wear protective clothes such as long sleeves, pants, boots and gloves. You can also use an over-the-counter barrier cream to prevent urushiol, the resin that causes the painful rash, from contacting your skin. Never burn off poisonous plants, because the smoke can spread urushiol to your skin and irritate your nasal passages and lungs.
If you think you might have come into contact with a poisonous plant, wash the exposed area, as well as your clothing, with soap and water immediately. Urushiol can stay potent for years, so make sure you clean your clothes thoroughly. If you think your pet has been affected, put on gloves and bathe the pet with soap and cool water. While fur usually protects your pet from urushiol, it can rub off on you.
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you develop a rash from these plants. In this case, you can use corticosteroid cream, calamine lotion and cool compresses to soothe the itching. You also can take oral antihistamines or a cool-water bath with an oatmeal-based product.
Most poison plant rashes go away in a few weeks with home treatment. But if the rash is close to your eyes, spreads substantially, does not go away after a few weeks or becomes infected, see your doctor for treatment.