How to Identify Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac [And How to Treat it In Case You Don’t]

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Most seasoned hikers should be able to spot poison ivy, oak and sumac from about a mile away. They’re common plants in the majority of the United States and you’d be hard pressed to go on a hike and not see one or the other on your journey.

Depending on the amount you’ve been exposed to, the time you were exposed and if you have an allergy or not, the reactions to these three poisonous plants can range from minor to severe. 

That’s why, even if you’re a seasoned hiker, it’s always a good idea to have a refresher. And if you’re a tenderfoot, you’ll definitely want to pay attention here and maybe take some notes! 

Identifying these plants on a night hike can prove to be a challenge regardless of whether you’re a grizzled journeyman or a newbie. So we recommend you always bring a flashlight with you while you’re out traveling under the moon and stars.

Poison Ivy

There are plenty of other plants that have clusters of leaves in threes, but most notably, poison ivy and poison oak. So it’s a good rule to just avoid three-leaf plants all together!

Here’s what you’ll see if you run across some poison ivy: a long stem with a larger leaf in the middle and two smaller leaves on either side. The leaves of poison ivy can be smooth or ridged on the edges, but either will have points at the tip.

Like many plants, they will turn when the fall comes around so it will be reddish in the spring, a dark green in summer, and yellow-orange in the fall. Also look for green-white berries on poison ivy through the spring and summer as they are fruit bearing plants and sometimes green-yellow flowers that you’ll want to refrain from sniffing!

Poison ivy grows everywhere in the US with the exceptions of Hawaii, Alaska, and deserts regions, and its appearance depends on the environment. The plant can either be a shrub or a vine, sometimes making it difficult to identify.

Here are some easy rhymes you can remember if you happen to forget your poison ivy identifying features:

  • “Leaves of three, let it be.”
  • “Berries white, run in fright.”
  • “Hairy vine, no friend of mine.”
  • “Long middle stem, stay away from them.”

Poison Oak

Similarly to poison ivy, poison oak also grows leaves in clusters of three, but just because you see more leaves doesn’t mean you’re safe as some varieties display five to seven per cluster.

Poison oak leaves tend to be wavy or scalloped similar to oak tree leaves. Like wise, the tips of the leaves are rounded instead of pointed. Much like their benign oak cousins, poison oak leaves begin bright green in spring, slowly turning yellow-green to pinkish in the summer before turning yellow and dark brown in the fall months.

Unlike poison ivy, poison oak almost always grows as a shrub, usually about 3 feet tall but there may be offshoots that grow as a vine. Poison oak is not as common as poison ivy and is mostly found on either coast and in the South. Those of you in the Midwest are safe!

Poison Sumac

One of the defining features of poison sumac is their stem, which are most commonly red. The plant generally has 7 to 13 leaves, which come in pairs with a lone leaf at the end. The leaves are oval, elongated, and the edges are smooth and 2 to 4 inches long. They are bright orange in spring, dark green in summer, and red-orange in fall. It grows as a tree or tall shrub, 5 to 20 feet tall.

Unlike poison ivy and oak, poison sumac is mostly found in swampy environments, most notably in the Southeastern United States and the Midwest. Anyplace where you can find high humidity and lots of water!

Allergy Concerns

When you rub up against a poison ivy, oak or sumac plant, your skin gets coated in an oily sap called urushiol. This sap causes an allergic reaction and within hours of an exposure (depending on the severity of your allergy) you can see a painful rash and blistering.

85% of the populace has an allergy to one of the three poison plants (often all three) and it’s generally a question of genetics. So if you’ve got a severe allergy you can blame your parents!

How to Treat Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac

The American Academy of Dermatology suggests these tips if you’ve been exposed to one of the three poison plants:

  1. Immediately rinse skin with lukewarm, soapy water.
  2. Wash the exposed clothing and anything that may have come in contact.
  3. Do not scratch the rash or blisters. Leave them alone! You may cause infection.
  4. Take short, lukewarm baths.
  5. Consider calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream.
  6. Apply cool compresses to the itchy skin.
  7. Consider taking antihistamine pills to reduce itching.

If you experience swelling, uncontrollable itching across your body or have trouble breathing or swallowing, seek emergency medical attention immediately.

 

Taking care to avoid contact with poison ivy, oak or sumac can save your fun wilderness getaway from becoming an itchy nightmare, but it can also save your life. So remember these tips for identifying these poisonous plants and you shouldn’t have any trouble!

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