How to Identify and Treat Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac

Poison Ivy

With warmer weather comes camping trips, hiking, long walks among the trees, and generally more time in the great outdoors. But nothing puts a damper on your fun like unexpected contact with poison ivy.

This post teaches you how to identify poison ivy, oak, and sumac and includes instructions on what to do if you come into contact with them.

How to Identify Poison Ivy

There are two types of poison ivy – Eastern and Western. As the name implies, eastern poison ivy is found in the eastern part of the country (with a few localized areas in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas).

On the other hand, western poison ivy is found in states across America. It earned the moniker because it’s the only type that grows in the majority of western states.

Both types of poison ivy have certain things in common.

Poison Ivy Facts  

Identifying Eastern Poison Ivy

You find eastern poison ivy on the ground, as a climbing plant, and as shrubbery. It appears in every state from the Midwest to the east coast, and in just about any habitat: beaches, near roads and highways, paths, ponds, and streams.

Eastern Poison Ivy

Identifying Western Poison Ivy

Western poison ivy is a ground vine that’s just as dangerous as the eastern variety, but you have to actually look for it. Also, many western states don’t have it at all. In the east, the plant interbreeds with its eastern cousin.

Western Poison Ivy

How to Identify Poison Oak

There are also two types of poison oak: Atlantic and Pacific. The Atlantic version is not common and is virtually indistinguishable from poison ivy. Pacific poison oak grows all along the west coast but is particularly problematic in California.

Both varieties share the same commonalities as poison ivy: the leaves always grow in groups of three and from left to right, never side by side. The plants also never have thorns or leaves with scalloped or saw-toothed edges.

Identifying Atlantic Poison Oak

Although not nearly as common, Atlantic poison oak looks practically identical to poison ivy. It grows as a ground vine or small shrub and seems to prefer dryer, sandy ground.

Atlantic Poison Oak

Identifying Pacific Poison Oak

Pacific poison oak is mainly found in California, but you also see it in Washington and Oregon. It grows as both ground and climbing vines as well as shrubs. The plant is as harmful as eastern poison ivy; when it burns during wildfires people often wind up in the hospital.

Pacific Poison Oak

How to Identify Poison Sumac

Relatively rare, the small poison sumac tree is related to poison ivy and poison oak, not to the much more common sumac tree. You find it in very wet areas along the east coast, Great Lakes, and along the coastline of the southeastern states.

The stems coming off the main trunk are red and the leaves’ edges are smooth, not saw-toothed. The berries hang down in loose bunches. In comparison, the non-poisonous staghorn sumac’s leaves have jagged edges and tight bunches of berries that stand upright. Winged sumac is identifiable by the “winged” growths that flank the stems between leaves.

Poison Sumac

What to Do when You Touch Poison Ivy, Oak, or Sumac

If you come into contact with one of these plants, don’t panic. You have about 30 minutes to minimize the damage. The goal is to get as much as of the plant’s poisonous oil off of your skin as possible and the best way to do that is with cool or cold water using high pressure. If there’s a garden hose nearby, that makes a great choice. You can also jump into a pool, lake, or other nearby body of water.

DO NOT take a hot shower or use soap. This helps spread the poisonous oil. Also, avoid touching other parts of your body, particularly your face and other areas with tender skin. The oil permeates thin skin very quickly.

For a minor rash, you can go to your local pharmacy and ask for their best remedy. If the rash is on your face or another tender area, or includes blisters, see your doctor right away. He or she can prescribe something.

How Do You Get a Rash from Poison Ivy, Oak, or Sumac?

Obviously, if you touch these plants you’re likely to get the oil on your skin and develop a rash. But, you can also come into contact with the oil if it touches a pet, yard tool or other implement, clothing, or really anything else.

If you use a lawn mower or line trimmer to knock down one of these plants, the oil may spatter your legs. If they’re bare, expect to get a rash. If they’re covered, wash your clothes immediately – preferably without anything else in the washing machine.

You can clean shoes, tools, and anything else the oil touches with rubbing alcohol. Just protect your hands with rubber gloves.

Finally, if you burn these plants, or they become part of a wildfire, the smoke is extremely hazardous. Do not purposely burn one of these poisonous plants.

For more information and photos to help you identify these plants, check out Poison-Ivy.org.

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