The Complete Guide: Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, & Poison Sumac

Many of our readers are metal detecting enthusiasts, as are many of us here at We’re in the woods, fields, and other outdoor areas in search of artifacts and other interesting items. So we thought it would be a good idea to put together a definitive guide on those pesky plants we all fear and respect – poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac.

So Why the Rash?

If you “get” poison ivy, what you’re really “getting” is an allergic reaction to the oily organic allergen found inside the plant’s leaves, stems, and roots called Urushiol (pronounced: oo-roo-shee-awl). The oil is found in all three plants.

There’s typically three ways to transmit the oily allergen:

1. Direct contact with the plant’s leaves, stems, or roots.

2. Indirect contact with an item that had direct contact with the plant (i.e. shovel, metal detector, clothes, shoes, etc.).

3. Airborne contact from the plant. For example, burning the plant will release Urushiol particles into the air that can penetrate your skin, eyes, and respiratory system.

When you’ve come into contact with Urushiol, it quickly penetrates the skin, often leaving a faint, raised red line where the oil has been transferred to your skin. The bad news? It’s nearly impossible to remove the oil even if the affected area is washed within 5 to 10 minutes of transmission. However, if you wash the area within an hour or so, you may be able to reduce the severity of the impending allergic reaction.

Redness, itching, swelling, and blisters will typically appear within 24 to 72 hours after exposure. An old wives’ tale suggests that scratching the rash will cause it to spread. While not true, it will prolong the healing process and can cause a more severe infection.

How to Identify Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac

Courtesy WebMD

Courtesy WebMD

Poison Ivy: Found throughout the United States, it grows as a vine or as a shrub. Vines are typically found in the East, South, and Midwest; trailing along the ground or climbing on other plants and trees. Shrubs are usually found in the North and West. Visual characteristics include three glossy leaflets protruding from each stem, with smooth or jagged edges. The leaves are reddish in the spring, green in summer, and may produce white flowers and berries. In the fall, the leaves become yellow or reddish-orange.

Poison Oak: Similar to poison ivy, it grows as a vine or as a shrub throughout many parts of the United States. In the East and South, it typically grows as a shrub. On the Pacific Coast, it grows as a clumping, or long trailing vine. The green, slightly fuzzy leaves grow in clusters of three, with smooth or jagged edges with rounded tips. In the spring and early summer, they may produce yellowish-white berries.

Poison Sumac: Visual characteristics are much different than those of poison ivy and poison oak. Poison sumac grows as a shrub or small tree in bogs or swamps in the Northeast, Southeast, and Midwest. Unlike poison ivy and oak, each stem produces 7 to 13 smooth-edged leaflets. Leaves are orange in spring and green in summer, often producing yellowish-green flowers and clusters of berries. In the fall, leaves turn yellow, orange and red. Leaves may also display black spots. These spots are deposits of Urushiol that have been exposed to air.

How to Avoid Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac

Avoid the plants: Remember: “Leaves of three, let them be.” This rule of thumb will help you steer clear of poison ivy and poison oak. Study the pictures above and store them on your phone for quick reference when in the field. While tough to do when relic hunting, try to stay on cleared pathways or in open fields.

If your hunting buddy happens to be a dog, the same approach holds true for them as well. Urushiol is a sticky oil that will cling to their fur and easily transfer to your skin when you give them a good ol’ scratch behind the ears. If you’ve been through an area where they may have come into contact with a plant, put on some dishwashing gloves and give them a bath.

Apply barrier cream: Before heading into the woods, try applying an over-the-counter skin cream that contains bentoquatam to block Urushiol from ever reaching your skin. Although discontinued, just ask your local pharmacist for IvyBlock, they’ll know where to steer you. While it won’t stop a reaction every time, it will certainly lessen its severity.

Wear protective clothing: Wear long pants, tall socks, shoes, a long-sleeved shirt, and gloves. On more than one occasion, I’ve passed on the long-sleeved shirt in the summer months and have suffered the consequences for doing so. I’ve learned I would rather endure some extra heat and sweat for a day than deal with a miserable rash for a week.

Remove clothing carefully: When removing your clothing, be careful not to transfer Urushiol resin onto other areas of your skin. For example, do not turn your shirt inside out and pull it over your face to remove it. If poison ivy came into contact with the surface of your shirt, you would essentially be wiping your face with an Urushiol towel! Always disrobe by removing articles of clothing away from the body.

Wash your skin: If possible, wash your skin using any type of soap within 10 minutes after exposure. After an hour, the Urushiol has penetrated your skin, and washing it won’t eliminate a reaction, but it may help stem the severity of the allergic reaction. When washing, ensure your scrub underneath fingernails and in-between crevices, as the resin may be lurking in hard to clean areas and could possibly be transferred to other areas of your body post-cleansing.

Clean everything else: Remember those clothes you took off so carefully? Make sure you throw them in the washing machine and wash them with detergent. In addition, wash all other potentially contaminated items such as the gear, tools, and shoes that were with you when you came into contact with poison ivy. When handling these items, it’s strongly suggested you do so with a pair of rubber kitchen gloves. When you’re done washing everything, wash the gloves!

How to Treat a Rash from Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac

No matter how careful we are, it seems as if most of us are destined to have a few bad interactions with these plants from time-to-time. To treat the rash, dermatologists recommend the following:

1. Never scratch, as this can cause a more serious infection.

2. Do not disturb blisters, as this could make the skin more susceptible to infection.

3. Take lukewarm baths with a colloidal oatmeal or baking soda preparation to ease the itch.

4. Use calamine lotion and/or hydrocortisone cream to reduce the urge to scratch.

5. Use a cool compress (wet washcloth) to ease the itch.

6. Consider taking antihistamine pills to reduce the itching.

7. If you’re adventuresome, try a few home remedies.

While we tried to cover everything, we may have missed something. What are some of your tips and tricks? Share them with us in the comments sections below. Updates

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