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Outsmarting Poisonous Plants

First comes the itching, then a red rash, and then blisters. These symptoms of poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac can emerge any time from a few hours to several days after exposure to the plant oil found in the sap of these poisonous plants. The culprit: the urushiol oil. Following are some tips to avoid it and to treat it.

Recognizing Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac

Learn what poison ivy, oak and sumac plants look like so you can avoid them (watch an FDA video).

  • Poison Ivy: Found throughout the United States except Alaska, Hawaii and parts of the West Coast. It can grow as a vine or small shrub trailing along the ground or climbing on low plants, trees and poles. Each leaf has three glossy leaflets, with smooth or toothed edges. Leaves are reddish in spring, green in summer, and yellow, orange, or red in fall. The plant may have greenish-white flowers and whitish-yellow berries.

  • Poison Oak: Grows as a low shrub in the Eastern and Southern United States, and in tall clumps or long vines on the Pacific Coast. It has fuzzy green leaves in clusters of three that are lobed or deeply toothed with rounded tips. The plant may have yellow-white berries.

  • Poison Sumac: Grows as a tall shrub or small tree in bogs or swamps in the Northeast, Midwest and parts of the Southeast. Each leaf has clusters of seven to 13 smooth-edged leaflets. Leaves are orange in spring, green in summer, and yellow, orange, or red in fall. The plant may have yellow-greenish flowers and whitish-green fruits hang in loose clusters.

Tips for Prevention

  • Wash your garden tools and gloves regularly. If you think you may be working around poison ivy, wear long sleeves, long pants tucked into boots, and impermeable gloves.

  • Wash your pet if it may have brushed up against poison ivy, oak, or sumac. Use pet shampoo and water while wearing rubber gloves, such as dishwashing gloves. Most pets are not sensitive to poison ivy, but the oil can stick to their fur and cause a reaction in someone who pets them.

  • Wash your skin in soap and cool water as soon as possible if you come in contact with a poisonous plant. The sooner you cleanse the skin, the greater the chance that you can remove the plant oil or help prevent further spread.

Tips for Treatment

Don’t scratch the blisters. Bacteria from under your fingernails can get into them and cause an infection. The rash, blisters and itch normally disappear in several weeks without any treatment.

You can relieve the itch by:

  • Using wet compresses or soaking in cool water.

  • Applying over-the-counter (OTC) topical corticosteroid preparations or taking prescription oral corticosteroids.

  • Applying topical OTC skin protectants, such as zinc acetate, zinc carbonate, zinc oxide, and calamine dry the oozing and weeping of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. Protectants such as baking soda or colloidal oatmeal relieve minor irritation and itching. Aluminum acetate is an astringent that relieves rash.

See a doctor if:

  • You have a temperature over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

  • There is pus, soft yellow scabs, or tenderness on the rash.

  • The itching gets worse or keeps you awake at night.

  • The rash spreads to your eyes, mouth or genital area, or covers more than one-fourth of your skin area.

  • The rash is not improving within a few weeks.

  • The rash is widespread and severe.

  • You have difficulty breathing.

When you cannot get into your regular doctor, you can receive care for skin rashes at Lake Regional Express Care, which has locations in Eldon, Osage Beach and Laurie. Skip the wait and reserve an appointment online!