Could these poisonous plants ruin your summer?

Written by Gene Caballero on October 25, 2017

Picture this: it’s a beautiful summer weekend, and you’re out and about with your family in a public park. 

As you cross over a dirt trail, you come into contact with some unusual shrubbery. From just a basic visual, these plants seem harmless; however, post-contact it won’t be long until an itchy and painful rash has spread to the various spots on your body. This somewhat ominous scenario isn’t meant to alarm you. With basic awareness, you can avoid poisons ivy, sumac, and oak. Simply follow the guide below and the complementary infographic, and you will have a safe and enjoyable summer.

The first and perhaps trickiest aspect to poison ivy is that it can appear in multiple forms and can affect you through multiple routes of contact. Depending on our geographical location, poison ivy will appear as a vine or as a shrub. The vine form is more prevalent on the Eastern seaboard and in the South of the United States, while the shrub tends to rear its head in the North and in the West. Regardless of these different forms, the branches of the plant remain the same. Each branch will contain three leaves and each leaf three leaflets. Depending on the season, the color of poison ivy can vary. Newer leaves tend to have reddish appearance and later in the season, the color can be orange, yellow, or brown.

The other two types of poisonous plants to be concerned with are poison sumac and poison oak. 

Sumac grows as a small tree or shrub in traditionally wet climates. A distinguishing factor about sumac is that it can grow small berries, depending on the size of the shrub. Furthermore, certain varieties of sumac are totally fine for skin contact; however, look out for the leaves that consist of 7-13 leaflets arranged in pairs. Reddish stems are often also associated with poison sumac.

Poison oak is a bit easier to identify if you can already identify poison ivy. It grows in the same pattern as poison ivy--three leaves connected to a single stem. In general, as with the other two, poison oak will have no thorns and its leaves will be rounder than a traditional oak leaf. 

Poison Ivy or Rhus toxicodendron contains an oily substance known as Urushiol. Contact with this substance has a propensity for causing an itchy skin rash. 

However, it is not just contact with urushiol that can be problematic. If poison ivy is burned and inhaled, there is the potential for a rash to develop on the inside of your lungs which can in turn cause severe respiratory problems. The key takeaway: if you discover poison ivy on your property, do not burn it! Outside of inhalation and direct contact, you may also develop a rash if you experience contact via a proxy. For example, if you have pets that have recently trampled over any poison ivy plants, they can transfer urushiol on to you, without developing a rash themselves.

Poison ivy is not the only bane of the summer; poison oak and poison sumac are the other two most common poisonous plants

The good news is that urushiol is the harmful substance found in both poison oak and poison sumac, so the treatment steps from above will work with exposure to these other two plants. 

The difference is that a poison oak and a poison sumac interaction tend to be more severe than contact with poison ivy. If you begin to experience trouble breathing, eyes or facial swelling, or signs of infection, seek immediate medical help. The best away to avoid sumac or oak poisoning is the same as for poison ivy, learn to recognize the plant, and don’t come in contact with it.

All of the preceding information paints a pretty negative picture of the ramifications of coming in contact with Urushiol. 

However, treatment of Urushiol is relatively straightforward and easy. Upon coming in contact with Urushiol, the first step is taking a cool shower to remove any remaining oils from your skin. In addition, any clothing that you were wearing when you came into contact with it should be immediately washed. If this step is skipped you risk the possibility of reinfection. After the steps have been performed, rubbing topical corticosteroid cream on any infected areas can be helpful in drying up rashes.

If the rash is really problematic, oral antihistamines can be useful to treat the inflammation and itching side effects. The two most common and effective over-the-counter medications are Benadryl (diphenhydramine) and Claritin (loratadine). If the symptoms persist to an unbearable level or if the rash is quite comprehensive in terms of effected area, going to a doctor and inquiring about prescription steroids or antihistamines remains an option. A general rule of thumb in these scenarios is that if you feel your case of any of the poisons is severe, err on the side of caution and seek a medical professional.

If you do not have immediate access to corticosteroid creams or antihistamines, there are a variety of alternative treatments that can help ease the symptoms of a Urushiol rash, some of which may seem unconventional. Have any vodka laying around? The alcohol in the vodka will wash away the urushiol oil and reduce any inflammation. 

Also, using the inside of a banana peel can help fight any discomfort. Banana peels are full of antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins that will help relieve the itch. Another common technique is to slice a cucumber and apply the slices to areas infected with the rash. Cucumbers have powerful antioxidants and flavonoids that reduce irritation. In addition, as you are slicing cucumbers, slice two extra pieces and apply them to your eyes; you deserve a spa day after dealing with Urushiol.

Close to a beach? Jump in and take a swim. 

The salt from the ocean will act as an astringent and dry up any itching. Another common treatment is an “oatmeal bath.” Fill your bathtub with cool water and oats and soak in it for period of time. Like cucumbers, oatmeal contains antioxidants with anti-inflammatory properties. Do you have a swimming pool close by? Pools that contain chlorine will aid in arresting the rash and dry up any infection.

One of the trickiest qualities about urushiol is its varying level of impact. Depending on your genetic makeup, you may actually be immune to the effects of urushiol entirely. Or quite possibly as a child, you may have had a predisposed sensitivity towards Urushiol, and as you aged now possess an immunity-like ability when coming into contact with it. 

This point is brought up not just as an interesting factoid, but as something to consider if you are perhaps going on a hiking trail with a friend who assures you ahead of time that there “is no poison ivy on the trail” or informs you “that’s definitely not poison ivy. I stepped all over that last week.” It is very possible that your friend in this scenario is simply insusceptible to Urushiol while you might not be.

Something to keep in mind about both the traditional and alternative home remedies they are not cures. Both the duration and severity of a rashes caused by the three culprits will vary from person to person. However, the important thing to keep in mind is that time and time alone will rectify the rash. Most rashes will resolve within five to ten days, while the most severe rashes can last up to thirty. If the rash persists for over a month, it may be wise to seek a medical professional.

While poison ivy, poison sumac, and poison oak can be painful and ruin a great day, you should not fret. 

All three can be avoided by remaining diligent of your surroundings and exercising caution if you are unsure if a plant is poisonous or not. Furthermore, with the aforementioned treatment protocols, in the event that you do infect yourself, you are now informed on the best ways to alleviate all discomfort. Using the infographic and the information here, poisonous plants will no longer be a thorn in your side!

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