Can You Identify Poison Ivy and Poison Oak On Sight?
If not, you may be in for a big surprise if you touch something you thought was safe and later realize it was poison ivy or poison oak!
When you hear someone say, “I have poison ivy” (or poison oak), what they should be saying is, “I have ‘contact dermatitis’ from touching poison ivy” (or from poison oak).
Identifying Poison Ivy and Poison Oak
Most of us have heard the saying: “Leaves of three, leave them be”. That saying reminds us that those plants, such as poison ivy and poison oak, have a three-leaf profile and we are to leave them alone.
Poison Ivy and Poison Oak Produce Similar Skin Reactions
Urushiol is an oily toxin that is found in both poison ivy and poison oak.
In both of these plants, urushiol coats the leaves, vines and roots. Therefore, no part of these plants are safe to touch.
About 80-90% of those who come in contact with this oily toxin have a negative reaction to it. If it touches your skin it can cause itching, burning, hives, rashes and blisters.
The best way to avoid getting urushiol on your skin is to avoid these 3-leaf plants altogether.
Eastern Poison Ivy – Found In: Eastern United States and Canada
Poison ivy plants have a 3-leaf profile.
Their leaves, which are all different shapes, have notched edges.
They change colors depending on the season. In the spring, they range from pink to light green. In the summer, they are dark green and shiny. In the fall, they are red, orange or yellow.
These poisonous plants can grow on the floor of a forest, as a low shrub or as a climbing vine.
You’ll find these plants near the edge of trails, in the woods or in clearings.
Pacific Poison Oak – Found In: Western Canada, Washington, Oregon, California And Nevada
Poison oak plants also have a 3-leaf profile.
Their leaves look like white oak leaves. They range from 1-4 inches long and have smooth, semi-rounded edges.
In the spring, they are reddish-green. In the summer, they are dark green. In the fall, they range from bright red to bright yellow.
They can be leafy shrubs that grow to be 3-6 feet tall or they can be climbing vines that range from 30-100 feet tall. These leaves can also be found on Douglas fir trees and redwoods.
You’ll find these leaves in areas where there are grassy hillsides or on dense shrubs, bushes and small trees.
Skin Reactions – Symptoms
Even a brief contact with a tiny drop of urushiol is enough to inflame your skin. Poison ivy and poison oak can cause itching and burning. Within 2-48 hours, the affected area can turn into a blistering rash.
To reduce the negative effects, you need to immediately treat the area that came in contact with even a drop of urushiol. Treating the area before it even has a chance of getting absorbed by your skin is the key.
Skin Reactions – Treatment
- Rinse all areas of the skin that came in contact with the poisonous plant, with cold water. (Do NOT use hot water as that will intensify the skin’s reaction to the toxin).
- Wash the entire affected area with soap and water. If that is not available, then use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- When washing the area, use a washcloth or something that will cause friction. The soap and water or the alcohol-based hand sanitizer by themselves is not good enough. You need to use something that will “scrub off” the toxin.
50% of the toxin can be removed, if you do the 2 steps above, within 10 minutes of coming in contact with it.
Only 10% of the toxin will be removed if you wait more than 30 minutes to follow the 2 steps shown above.
Unfortunately, if you are unable to wash the urushiol off in time, then the skin reaction can take up to 3 weeks to clear up.
To reduce the itching and inflammation, you can apply Calamine lotion or use a cortisone-based cream. If that is not sufficient, you can take an oral antihistamine such as Benadryl, but check with your doctor first.
If you do get blisters, do not try to break them. If they start to lose liquid or break on their own, you must keep the area covered with a bandage. The area has to stay clean or you can get an infection.
Is Poison Ivy or Poison Oak, Contagious?
- Poison ivy & poison oak are contagious because of the toxin that is coated on them.
- There is a misconception that poison ivy and poison oak rashes or blisters are contagious. Neither the rashes nor the blisters are contagious.
- The ENTIRE poison ivy and poison oak plants are coated with urushiol. Urushiol IS contagious and if touched, will give you the itching, burning, hives, rashes and/or blisters.
However, the blister fluid that may seep out does not contain urushiol and therefore is not contagious.
The only way for contact dermatitis to be passed from one person to another is if you were to touch a person that still has urushiol on them, their clothing, shoes, backpack, etc.
All species of poison ivy and poison oak have 3 leaves. If you see any 3-leaf plants, steer clear of them. It’s not worth it to take any chances.
When passing through any areas where there are plants that have 3 leaf clusters, tuck your pant legs into your socks for protection.
To read another interesting article from The Joy of Hiking, click the link below.