Poison Ivy, Poison Sumac, and Poison Oak

Maybe it happened when you were cutting the weeds. Maybe your dog was out in the woods and brushed up against it. Or maybe it was from that jacket you wore during a camping trip last fall. No matter the “how”, the “why” is that the itchy rash (contact dermatitis) you have is from the urushiol of the poison ivy, oak or sumac plant. Summertime may be full of fun, but it also comes with an array of potential health concerns. It is important to know how our bodies react to these plants, the dangers involved, and the treatment for that annoying rash. 

What happens when we are exposed?

Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac release an oil, urushiol, when the leaf or other plant parts are bruised, damaged, or burned. When the oil gets on the skin an allergic reaction, referred to as contact dermatitis. These plants cause an allergic reaction in nearly 85% of the population.

Symptoms of allergic reaction:

  • Red rash within a few days of contact 
  • Swelling 
  • Itching 
  • Possible bumps, patches, streaking or weeping blisters NOTE: Blister fluids are not contagious

When exposed to 50 micrograms of urushiol, an amount that is less than one grain of table salt, 80 to 90 percent of adults will develop a rash. The rash, depending upon where it occurs and how broadly it is spread, may significantly impede or prevent a person from working. Burning these poisonous plants can be very dangerous because the allergens can be inhaled, causing lung irritation. These injuries can lead to serious respiratory problems that can result in death.

Outdoor workers may be exposed to poisonous plants. Outdoor workers at risk include farmers, foresters, landscapers, groundskeepers, gardeners, painters, roofers, pavers, construction workers, laborers, mechanics, and any other workers who spend time outside. Forestry workers and firefighters who battle forest fires are at additional risk because they could potentially develop rashes and lung irritation from contact with damaged or burning poisonous plants.

Outdoor workers may become exposed to urushiol through:

  • Direct contact with the plant
  • Indirect contact, such as touching tools, livestock, or clothing that have urushiol on them
  • Inhalation of particles containing urushiol from burning plants

How can I prevent this allergic reaction?

Protecting yourself goes a long way, here are some common sense tips to avoid this dreaded rash:

  • Know how to properly identify poison ivy, oak and sumac. For instance, poison ivy grows on vines, poison oak and poison sumac grow in shrub form, and poison hemlock looks like giant parsley! The traditional rule “leaves in three, let it be!” only applies to poison ivy and poison oak; poison sumac has clusters of 7-13 leaves. 
  • Wear long sleeves, long pants, boots, and gloves.
  • Wash exposed clothing separately in hot water with detergent. 
  • Barrier skin creams, such as lotion containing bentoquatam, may offer some protection. 
  • After use, clean tools with rubbing alcohol or soap and lots of water. Urushiol can remain active on the surface of objects for up to 5 years. Wear disposable gloves during this process.
  • Do not burn plants or brush piles that may contain poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac. Inhaling smoke from burning plants can cause severe allergic respiratory problems.

For outside workers who are burning poisonous plants, employers should provide workers with: ■ A NIOSH-certified half-face piece particulate respirator rated R–95, P–95, or better. This recommendation does NOT apply to wildland firefighters, who may require a higher level of protection. Shop our respirators here: add link. These respirators should protect against exposure to burning poisonous plants, but will not protect against all possible combustion products in smoke, such as carbon monoxide.

■ Respirators must be worn correctly and consistently throughout the time they are used. 

■ For respirators to be effective there must be a tight seal between the user’s face and the respirator. 

What should I do if I am exposed to one of these plants?

If you are exposed to a poisonous plant:

  • Immediately rinse skin with rubbing alcohol, poison plant wash, or degreasing soap (such as dishwashing soap) or detergent, and lots of water. 
  • Rinse frequently so that wash solutions do not dry on the skin and further spread the urushiol. 
  • Scrub under nails with a brush. 

How do I treat contact dermatitis from the urushiol?

  • Apply wet compresses, calamine lotion, or hydrocortisone cream to the skin to reduce itching and blistering. 
  • Oatmeal baths may relieve itching. 
  • An antihistamine may help relieve itching. NOTE: Drowsiness may occur. 
  • In severe cases or if the rash is on the face or genitals, seek professional medical attention.
  • Call 911 or go to a hospital emergency room if you have a severe allergic reaction, such as swelling or difficulty breathing, or have had a severe reaction in the past.
  • Legacy Medical Sales provides various products to help relieve the itch and rash after a reaction occurs, shop here: Poison Ivy Care

By educating your family, taking the proper precautions and treating rashes with products from Legacy Medical Sales you can enjoy all your upcoming summer activities without fear. Still not sure which products to use for your rash? Simply contact a sales representative for more help at 1-800-446-7310.