Camping, hiking and fishing season have begun, which means contact with plants and nature. Contact with rhus plants such as Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac can cause a red, itchy rash which is an allergic contact dermatitis-the most common skin issue involving contact with plants. These plants have sticky oil called urushiol, which causes the rash to occur. In fact rhus sensitivity is the most common type of contact dermatitis.

All it takes is a touch or brush against these plants’ leaves, stems, flowers, berries, and roots (dead or alive); or touch any clothing, gear, tools or pets that made contact with the plant. The fluid from blisters does not cause the rash to be contagious. When someone is allergic to these plants, their immune system reacts as if the oil is a harmful substance. The result is a chemical response that causes the rash and the itching.

Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac are found throughout the United States. Knowing where they grow and what they look like can make it easy to avoid contact.

  • Poison Ivy-Everywhere except Hawaii and Alaska (generally in Midwest and East). This plant tends to have three broad, spoon-like leaves (three leaves, let it be) and grow as climbing vines or low throughout grass (eastern states) or shrubs (northern states). It grows near rivers, lakes and beaches, and has red leaves and white/cream berries in the fall.
  • Poison Oak-West of the Rocky Mountains (most common). This plant has between three and seven oak-like leaves, and grows as a vine or shrubs.
  • Poison Sumac-Less common and found mainly in the Southeastern United States, in wooded, swampy places. This plant has seven to 13 leaves on each stem, with smooth edges and pointed tips. It grows as a shrub or small tree.

If you are allergic to these plants, the symptoms you will experience are:

  • Itching
  • Red streaks or redness around the contact area
  • Small bumps or large hives
  • Blisters that may leak

More severe allergic reactions include:

  • Swelling of the mouth, eyes, face, neck or genitals
  • Large, oozing blisters spread throughout the body

A mild rash can be treated at home, but should still be checked by a physician. For a mild rash:

  • Apply a wet washcloth or soak in cold water
  • Apply Calamine lotion to calm the itching
  • Do not scratch the area, as it can cause an infection

Do not use:

  • Antihistamines
  • Topical anesthetics containing benzocaine
  • Topical antibiotics containing neomycin

If you come in contact with one of these plants, here are two tips to help prevent a rash:

  • Wash skin immediately with water and mild soap
  • Immediately wash clothes that may have the oil on them