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Poison Plants: Can’t Touch This!

White Plains Hospital

August 5, 2020

Poison Plants: Can’t Touch This!

How to recognize and treat poison ivy, oak and sumac.

For those of us who hike, garden, or just enjoy being outdoors, there’s a trio of troublesome plants spread across the country that can turn a pleasant day outside into a scratch-filled trip to the doctor.

Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac may be different plants, but they have one thing in common –urushiol. Urushiol is an oily sap found in the plants and according to the American Skin Association, 85% of all Americans are allergic to it.  If you come in contact with one of these plants, you’re likely develop a rash within 12-72 hours.

The signs and symptoms may include:

  • Intense itching of the skin
  • Reddening of the skin
  • Swelling of the skin
  • An outbreak of small or large blisters
  • Crusting skin

“Leaves of three, let it be”

Poison ivy grows throughout the United States, primarily east of the Rocky Mountains. It grows as hairy or fuzzy-looking vines or a shrub, and can be found in open fields, wooded areas, parks and backyards. The plants typically have smooth, almond-shaped leaves clustered in groups of three.

Poison oak, on the other hand, is indigenous to the western part of the country, and also grows as a vine or shrub. Although poison oak looks similar to poison ivy, it has larger leaves that are more rounded, like that of an oak leaf. Like poison ivy, it also has a tri-clustered leaf arrangement, so make sure to remember the old saying, “Leaves of three, let it be!”

The other urushiol carrying plant, poison sumac, is less common than poison oak and ivy and is mostly found in swamps in the southeastern part of the country. Poison sumac grows as a shrub or small tree with each stem containing 7 to 13 leaves arranged in pairs. Compared to poison ivy and poison oak, poison sumac has a greater potential to inflict a more severe rash.

“The initial treatment for someone who has been exposed to any of these plants is to rinse the infected area with lukewarm soapy water to remove the urushiol oil within 10 minutes of exposure,” says Dr. Jennifer Camacho, Allergy and Immunology Specialist at Scarsdale Medical Group. “It’s also important to scrub under your fingernails to remove any remnants of urushiol oil. In addition, you should thoroughly clean clothing or any objects that may have come into contact with these plants, such as gardening tools camping equipment or pets.”

If you’re working outside in wooded areas or locations with heavy foliage wear long pants, long sleeves, don’t forget to wear boots and gloves for protection.

Stop that itch

If you’re looking for relief from the itching and swelling caused by poison ivy, oak and sumac, calamine lotion is an over-the-counter medication that is convenient and affordable.  While it’s not a cure, its main ingredient, zinc oxide, has a calming effect on the skin and helps dry out the rash caused by the plants.

Other remedies include a hydrocortisone cream, or an oral antihistamine like Benadryl. You may also want to try home remedies like a baking soda or an oatmeal bath, or try essential oils such as eucalyptus or chamomile. For those who prefer a “do-it-yourself” method, it may take three weeks or longer for a rash to resolve. However, if the rash does not dissipate on its own, or if you are having trouble breathing, develop a fever, or can’t find relief from the discomfort and itchiness, consult your doctor.

“You should also see a doctor if the rash appears infected or spreads to your eyelids, lips or face,” says Dr. Camacho. “Your doctor may prescribe a high-potency steroid cream or an oral corticosteroid, such as prednisone, to accelerate your recovery.”

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