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

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

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


While we’d all love for our outdoor adventures to run flawlessly from start to finish, that is not always the case. Sometimes, we accidentally collide with the not-so-friendly plant life out there in the wild. Poison ivy, poison oak, and sumac are good examples.

All three of these plants bear an oil called urushiol. When a human is in contact with this oil, things can become unpleasant rather quickly. Recognizing the symptoms of exposure as well as the plants themselves will help you to treat the problem right away.

Recognizing the Plants

There are a couple things to take into consideration when trying to identify a plant species. First, consider your location. For the most part, poison ivy, poison oak, and sumac thrive in different parts of the continent from one another. Knowing which plant is common to the area you’re exploring will help with the identification process.

Second, it’s important to pay close attention to the plant’s appearance as each of these three species is different!

Poison Ivy

Poison ivy can be found on nearly every continent! In North America, it is most prevalent in the Midwestern and Eastern United States. It thrives along ocean beaches and the shores of smaller bodies of water.

It will most-often possess only 3 leaves. The leaves are shiny, spoon-shaped, and have notches on the edges. These plants grow as shrubs and vines. In autumn, you can recognize them by their white/off-white berries.

Poison Oak

Poison oak is most prevalent in the western U.S.A. It is rare to encounter it in the Midwest.

As the common name suggests, the leaves of this plant do look like the leaves of an oak tree! They’re slightly larger than poison ivy leaves and are somewhat “hairy” in texture. They generally have 3-7 leaves and grow as a vine or shrub.


Sumac is most common in the southeastern region of the United States. It thrives well in marshy and wet, wooded environments.

This plant has more leaves than the other two plants in question: You can expect to find them with 7-13 leaves in a cluster. Also, unlike the other two plants, the leaves of this plant are smooth at the edges and pointed at the tip.

Signs and Symptoms

Regardless of which plant you suspect you’ve been exposed to, the signs and symptoms are the same across the board.  Keep in mind that the signs and symptoms may vary from person to person. Not everyone experiences all of them. They might include the following:

  • Hives
  • Rash
  • General skin redness
  • Red streaks on the skin
  • Itchy skin
  • Swelling
  • Patches of blisters (may be large or small)

Now, let’s talk about the rash.

Not everyone gets the rash. Those who have never been exposed to urushiol before are less likely to get it.

The rash that comes with exposure will appear wherever your skin touched the urushiol. For instance, if you grazed the leaves with your forearm, you can bet on seeing a rash appear on your forearm. If the oil is on your fingertips or hands and you happen to rub your eyes or itch another portion of your body, you can bet that that part of your body will develop the rash as well.

Treating the Problem

If you know for certain you’ve been in contact with poison ivy, poison oak, or sumac, its important to treat the problem as soon as you can to avoid worsening symptoms. Fortunately, your average first-aid kit generally comes equipped with the items you need!

Start by cleansing the area of skin that was exposed. Rubbing alcohol works best because it effectively removes urushiol oil. If you’re in a situation where rubbing alcohol isn’t available, cleansing your skin with soap and water will suffice.

To sooth the itchy skin associated with exposure to these plants, calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream can be applied topically. Over-the-counter antihistamines such as Benadryl can be taken orally to reduce the rash.

While these remedies won’t eliminate the problem entirely, they’ll at least help you work through the uncomfortable situation! You’ll be back in good health before you know it.