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Poisonous Plants: Treat and Avoid Poison Ivy, Poison Oak and Poison Sumac

Some plants are best left untouched. Learn how to identify, treat and avoid poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac.

What are poisonous plants?

Plants that contain chemicals that cause a reaction, whether from ingestion or physical contact, are considered poisonous. Several plants have chemicals that can cause an often itchy or painful rash when touched.

Which poisonous plants am I most likely to encounter?

Whether you’re working or enjoying leisure time outdoors, there are three common poisonous plants you are likely to run into: poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. Touching or brushing against these three plants can cause a rash, so it is important to understand what they look like, how to avoid them and how to treat the side effects if you do come into contact.

Poison Ivy

Poison ivy grows as vine or shrub, with stems that grow three glossy “leaflets.” It grows in most of the contiguous United States except for some parts of the west coast.

A photo of poison ivy leaves.

Poison Oak

Poison oak can be found in the eastern, southern and Pacific coastal regions of the United States. Its leaves are lobed and look like those of an oak tree with small hairs, making the plant look fuzzy.

A photo of poison oak leaves.

Poison Sumac

Poison sumac thrives in wet, swampy areas across the United States — most commonly in the Northeast, Midwest and Southeast. Poison sumac leaves are smooth-edged and flat, presenting in clusters of 7 to 13.

A photo of poison sumac leaves.

What happens if I touch poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac?

Oils from the plant may cause a reaction. The oils in the plants and their leaves can get onto your skin through touch, clothing or tools. If you do not rinse your skin of the oils with soapy water, or you are unaware of the contact, you are very likely to break out in a rash. The rash may form in as little as a few hours after contact, or it may begin several days after your first contact.

The most common symptoms of the rash include:

  • Itchiness

  • Redness

  • Swelling

  • Blisters

How can I tell if my rash is from a poisonous plant?

A medical professional can help you determine the cause of your rash. If you have been in nature recently, there is a chance you may have encountered a poisonous plant without realizing. Rashes and symptoms of poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac have 4 stages. If you are experiencing these symptoms and cannot find relief, it may be time for medical treatment.

  1. Itching – this often occurs even before a rash has appeared

  2. Your skin will experience redness and swelling

  3. Fluid-filled blisters – the blisters will typically break open and leak fluid

  4. Crusting and itching – as the blisters try to heal, they will form a crust, and still itch

How can I treat my poisonous plant rash at home?

If you know you have come into contact with a poisonous plant, rinse your skin with warm, soapy water as soon as possible. Washing your clothes and any tools will also help, as they can hold onto the plant’s oils that cause a rash.

If you have already begun to experience the rash and effects of a poisonous plant, do your best to avoid itching and agitating the blisters as they could become infected. Cold compresses, warm baths, antihistamines like Benadryl and anti-itch creams like calamine lotion can offer relief.

How can I avoid the effects of poisonous plants?

When spending time outdoors, your best defense is awareness of your surroundings. Know what poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac look like so you can avoid them. Wearing longer clothing to avoid contact while hiking, gardening or working can also add a layer of protection from any plants that go unseen.

When should I visit urgent care to treat my poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac rash?

If you are uncomfortable and experiencing the effects of a poisonous plant, an urgent care medical provider may be able to help. They can provide medication and prescriptions to ease the itchiness and pain that comes from the rash, or if scratching your blisters caused them to become infected.

Visit WellNow for Poisonous Plant Rash Treatment

At WellNow, our dedicated medical team will provide comprehensive care and treatment for your rashes, reactions and skin irritations.

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WellNow Urgent Care is a series of urgent care clinics and virtual care serving the Midwest and Northeastern United States in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Information contained in this blog is for informational or educational purposes only and does not substitute professional medical advice or consultations with healthcare professionals. The content is not meant to be complete or exhaustive or to apply to any specific individual's medical condition. Always refer to the personalized information given to you by your doctor or contact us directly.