Your Healthiest Summer
Poison Ivy and Poison Oak
Avoid Leaves of Three
For individuals and families alike, outdoor activities make for tons of fun. However, you should know how to spot poison ivy and poison oak if you’re heading into wooded areas. A painful, itchy rash is the most common allergic reaction to poison ivy and poison oak.
Click through the slideshow to learn what you need to know if you come into contact with these pesky plants.
What to Look for: Poison Ivy
Poison ivy is a plant with clusters of three hairy, lobed leaves that change color with the seasons: reddish in the spring, green in the summer, and reddish-orange in the fall. Young leaves are shiny.
Poison ivy can exist as a small plant, a bush, or a vine. You’ll find poison ivy in every state in the United States except for Alaska, Hawaii, and California (CDC).
What to Look for: Poison Oak
The “leaves of three” rule applies to poison oak as well as poison ivy. Poison oak has three glossy green leaves that are lobed and look very similar to the leaves of an oak tree.
It thrives in both sunlight and shade. On America’s east coast, poison oak usually grows as a low shrub. In the West, it grows as a vine.
How to Protect Yourself
To avoid blisters and the itchy rash that often appears in streaks from contact with poison ivy or poison oak, take preventive measures. Adults and children alike should dress properly before walking in the woods. Be sure to:
- wear closed shoes
- wear long pants and long sleeves
- wear rubber gloves when doing yard work where you suspect poison ivy or oak
Don’t Catch It
It takes direct contact to “catch” poison ivy or poison oak. Contact with any part of the plant—including leaves, stems, or roots—can result in an itchy skin rash.
But it’s not the plant itself that causes the rash; it’s the oil within the plant. This oil, called urushiol, is extraordinarily potent and can stay active on any surface. According to the Mayo Clinic, the oil can still cause a reaction on your skin years after an object has been contaminated.
Because the oil within both poison ivy and poison oak leaves can stay active for so long, you can get poison oak or ivy indirectly, by touching something the plant oil touched. Therefore, be sure to wash anything that may have come in contact with the plant, especially clothes.
The rash itself isn’t contagious; however, you’ll spread the rash if you spread the oil from your hands to your face or your legs.
Treatment: Preventing the Rash
If you come into contact with poison ivy or oak, wash the exposed skin with soap and water, or wipe the affected area thoroughly with rubbing alcohol.
Quickness counts! According to the Mayo Clinic, you have about 10 minutes before that poisonous oil causes a reaction. Bring a small amount of soap and a container of water or rubbing alcohol with you on trips into the woods.
Even Pets Can Spread It
When you wash, make sure to scrub your hands and fingers—including underneath the fingernails—thoroughly to avoid the spread of urushiol.
If your dog comes into contact with poison oak or ivy, wear rubber gloves and wash your pet with shampoo and water as quickly as possible. You should even wash outdoor items like sports equipment or gardening tools with soap and water if there’s any question of contact.
Treating the Rash
According to the Mayo Clinic, treatment of the rash is usually based on home remedies, such as taking a cold shower and applying a cold compress to constrict the blood vessels and reduce itching. Calamine lotion, over-the-counter corticosteroid cream, or antihistamines can also provide some relief.
However, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends asking your pharmacist if over-the-counter medicines might help your condition.
Remember the Rhyme
Scratching the rash can cause infection. Seek medical care if:
- signs of infection develop
- you experience swelling in your face or throat
- the rash doesn’t get better in a few weeks
- the rash is severe
Play it safe this summer, and remember this helpful rhyme whenever you venture into the woods: “Leaves of three, let it be.”