I almost did a really stupid thing last weekend. Alright, all you “friends” out there are probably saying “Almost? Really?”
But the thing I’m referring to is pulling out a patch of “weeds” that Mary reminded me looked an awful lot like what she thought poison ivy looked like. Well she was right, and this Eagle Scout, outdoorsman, know-everything, encyclopedia of human knowledge was saved from one terrible fate by her gentle, accurate warning.
No doubt, one way to put a serious damper on summer fun is to get an oozing, itchy rash from poison ivy, poison sumac or even poison oak (if you happen to be in certain parts of the Southern or Western U.S.).
If you don’t know how to spot these poisonous plants (and Mary’s not around) or what to do if you come in contact with them, you could be in for a few weeks of unsightly rash, itchy, red skin, and even blisters.
Poison ivy, sumac and oak produce an oil called urushiol, which can cause an allergic reaction in the form of a rash 12 to 72 hours after you come into contact with the leaves, stems or roots of the plant.
Most of the time it’s only annoying, bothersome and unsightly, but in some cases, it can cause swelling and hives, which might necessitate a visit to your doctor. Knowing what to look for and how to treat your skin can help you avoid poisonous plants.
Both poison ivy and poison sumac can be found in Northeastern Pennsylvania. If your summer travels will take you south, including Maryland and West Virginia, or to the West Coast, you may come into contact with poison oak.
How to spot poison ivy, oak and sumac
Poison ivy plants have three shiny leaves that grow from one stem. The leaves change colors — they’re green in the summer and reddish in the fall. In some cases, the leaves could have notches, and the plant can grow as a bush or as a vine that grows up a fence or building. Poison ivy may also have white or yellow flowers or berries.
Poison sumac leaves grow in clusters of seven to 13 along a stem. Poison sumac also includes yellow flowers that grow into yellow or off-white berries. The plant can grow as a shrub or a tree.
Poison oak leaves grow in threes like poison ivy. Look for leaves similar to those of an oak tree. Poison oak may also have yellow or green flowers or yellow or white berries.
How to treat poisonous plants
Eighty to 90 percent of people who come in direct or indirect contact with poison ivy, sumac or oak will develop a rash — whether you accidentally brush up against the plant while wearing shorts, or your garden tools or clothing come into contact with the plant.
The rash usually clears up within one to three weeks on its own, but it can cause a lot of discomfort along the way. As your skin heals, it can get very itchy.
If you stumble upon poison ivy, sumac or oak while doing lawn work, hiking, camping or even playing outside, here’s what you should do:
First, wash any exposed skin with warm water and soap right away to remove the oil from your skin. The sooner the better — washing within an hour may prevent an allergic reaction.
The toxic oil can also hide under your fingernails, so it’s important to scrub your nails with a brush and wash your hands thoroughly. You may also want to wash your clothes to remove any residue for good measure.
Treat the red, bumpy rash with calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream to reduce itching or blistering. It’s important that, if you do experience blisters, you do not apply lotion to broken skin.
If the itchiness is too much to manage, you can also turn to an antihistamine.
While most people experience the effects of a poisonous plant and learn their lesson without too much discomfort, some people experience more severe symptoms that require a trip to the doctor. If you develop poison ivy, sumac or oak on your face or — eek — on your genitals, you should see your doctor.
In addition, if you experience severe swelling, have a hard time breathing or you have had a severe reaction in the past, you should get medical attention immediately.
Thanks Mary — again.
Dr. Alfred Casale, a cardiothoracic surgeon, is Associate Chief Medical Officer for Geisinger Health and Chair of the Geisinger Cardiac Institute. Readers may write to him via [email protected]